Wednesday, June 15, 2011
NOW, THAT'S FUNNY: Part IV
Lucy does her usual scene-stealing for laughs
on "I Love Lucy."
To get ahead in Hollywood, one really has to stand out. This was a lesson Lucille Ball learned early on. An observant girl with an uncanny knack for funny, Lucy would take note when she found something hilarious and would later use it in her own work. When a teenager, she would once have the awestruck honor of witnessing a funny tidbit via silent screen gem Dorothy Gish. While modeling at a Carnegie fashion show, Lucy happened to see both Dorothy (left) and sister Lillian with their two dates. When Lillian and the two gents walked away for a pace, Lucy watched while Dorothy calmly ripped her red program apart and stuck the little pieces to her face. When the trio returned, and Dorothy's pimpled face greeted them, they all burst out laughing. Lucy did too, and she would remember the moment. Later, when trying to land a spot as a chorine in the Eddie Cantor flick Roman Scandals, Lucy would steal Dorothy's gimmick. Applying the pieces of red crepe paper to her own face, she waited as Eddie went down the line of lovely girls, scanning their ripe figures and eying their legs. When he came to Lucy, he stopped in his tracks and started cracking up. He asked her name, and as he walked away, she could hear him say, "That Ball dame-- she's a riot!" Needless to say, she made an impression and got the gig.
"I Love Lucy" co-star William Frawley was also a natural comedian. If anyone on the show knew how to deliver a line, it was Frawley. In fact, he added a lot of gags and one-liners to punch up the already hilarious scripts. Because of this, he was constantly winning the "funny race" backstage. All of the names of the cast and crew were listed on a poster, and when they contributed something side-splitting to the show, they received a gold star next to their name. Frawley's name always outshined the others. However, he sometimes didn't "get" the jokes assigned to him. This is obviously not because he lacked a good sense of humor, but because he only ever memorized his own lines. So, during rehearsal, he would come up to Desi Arnaz and say, "You know, this line isn't very funny." Desi (with Bill on the show, right) continually had to explain, "Well sure, not by itself, but after the build-up it makes a great punchline." He would then describe the scenario, and suddenly the comic button that William's Fred Mertz added made sense. "Oh," he'd say. "Yeah. I guess that is funny."
Back in the days before personal stylists and make-up artists, an actor was pretty much left up to his or her own devices to contrive the perfect look for a character. In addition to providing your own wardrobe, so too must you possess the ability to "put your face on," because no one else was gonna do it for you. This was information that aspiring young ingenue Leatrice Joy (left) knew all too well. The silent film actress was a novice when she started performing before the camera, but then, in 1918, so was everyone else. However, her jitters got the better of her before the camera started cranking on One Dollar Bid. Panicked about looking her best, in addition to adding cosmetics to her face, she decided to add a white paste to her arms to give them a smooth, porcelain look. When it came time for her to give her co-star and latest crush, John Gilbert, a tender embrace, her hug left white blotches all over his brand new jacket. Since John was also a struggling actor-- as evidenced by his thin-from-starvation frame-- the fact that one of his few personal suits of clothes was ruined was enough to send him into a tizzy. Poor Leatrice was humiliated, but after John sent her into tears, he apologized. When daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain later asked her mother what had made her make such a strange cosmetic choice, the elder Leatrice simply said that she thought it would look "pretty." The result was pretty awful.
Leatrice would later make another make-up foul-up when, after making peace, John started courting her. Both actors, while not famous by any means, had by now established some level of stability in the acting world, and Leatrice was flattered that the handsome, growing star was paying her such steadfast attention. Once again nervous, she went to a trusted source of feminine wiles for help: neighbor Theda Bara. The Queen of Sexual Potency (see right) had plenty of advice for the delicate young Leatrice and allegedly gave her a makeover that completely altered her appearance. One might have likened her to... a "harlot." Since John was a couth gentleman, Leatrice doubted that he would take to her new appearance and wiped most of its evidence away before he arrived to pick her up. However, she had neglected to remove the rouge from her earlobes, which Theda had assured her was all the rage-- certain to indicate to her suitor her secret, sensual passion. While dancing, John couldn't help but notice Leatrice's ears, which appeared to be inflamed and infected. When he asked her about them, she fessed up. All John could do was laugh. He helped her to remove the last of Theda's influence, and the two enjoyed the rest of the evening. Leatrice made a pretty good impression on her own. John would marry her in 1922. Despite their divorce two years later, and John's tumultuous romance with Greta Garbo, he would always attest that the sweet, naive Leatrice was the one who got away.
Ernest Borgnine is not the typical leading man. Yet, after serving some time in the military, the perplexed young fella' was nudged into acting by his mother, who saw a talent that he had never realized. Slowly but surely, the character actor honed his craft and became a dependable and capable commodity to the stage. The next logical step was Hollywood, which was very far from Ernie's roots, but he was willing to give it a go. A fun-loving but old-fashioned guy, he would always recall one of his early screen tests with humor. Richard Siodmak saw some real potential in him, and asked him to come in to audition for The Whistle at Eaton Falls. "Audition" was a very strong word, for Ernie's performance was relegated to basically sitting in a chair and smiling. Awkward and still in a whirl about it all, he was confused when the director gave him his one simple direction: "Say 'Sh*t,' then smile." "What?!" Ernie replied. "Just do it. Trust me." So, Ernest lit up a big grin, looked directly into the camera and said with great joy, "Sh*t!" Cut. (See similar effect, left). Afterward, Richard took the screen test to producer Louis de Rochemont. When he saw Ernest's footage he asked, "What is he saying?" Richard lied: "I don't know, but he's got a great smile!" Louis must have agreed, for Ernest Borgnine was cast in the movie, which was his film debut.
Charlton Heston (right) also made a great impression on director Cecil B. DeMille. But not a great first impression. Cecil wasn't interested when he first saw the actor, considering him too "sinister," but then Cecil was an eccentric guy. After writing Chuck off as just another run-of-the-mill actor, one day, Heston happened to drive past him on the back lot and flash a wave. Suddenly, Cecil had a change of heart. Turning to his assistant, Gladys Rosson, he said, "I like the way he waved just now." Maybe there was something to this kid after all... He seemed to have the confidence and charisma that Cecil needed in a leading man. Chuck was soon put to the test when he was cast in The Greatest Show on Earth as Brad Braden. But, his first role with DeMille might have initially had Cecil rethinking his choice. For his first scene, Chuck had to drive up and jump out of a jeep. Instead, he drove up, hopped out, and fell flat on his face. One can almost imagine Cecil closing his eyes and shaking his head in annoyance. Luckily, Chuck was able to shake off the initial embarrassment and churn out a strong performance. Cecil too was impressed, and he would recast Heston in the pinnacle success of his career The Ten Commandments. It was because of this movie that Chuck's unique place in cinema was solidified. Thanks to that simple wave, Charlton Heston became a star. A little friendliness goes a long way.
Norma Talmadge was one of the divas of the silent film era (as seen left). Sadly, she is too often forgotten amongst her contemporaries, along with her sisters Constance and Natalie. In her hey-day, while married to none other than production chief Joseph Schenck, Norma ruled all. In a powerful position, she had her choice of roles and was able to rake in the dough. She could be seen around town looking very regal in her fine furs and elegant gowns. During the brief time that these untouchable celebs were seen as royalty, she more than played the part-- on and off screen. Yet, it was all a game, and while her more smart-ass sister Connie aka "Dutch" seemed to latch onto this, Norma sometimes seemed to be completely lost in the oblivion of her own narcissistic delusions. It was an "I think, therefore I am" kind of attitude. However, there were times when the aloof veneer would come down and the Brooklyn girl would come out with full force. If there was one man who loved to identify and skewer hypocrisy, it was Groucho Marx, which is why he loved having his pal George Jessel reminisce about the Grande Dame... who apparently had a bit of a drinking problem. To Groucho's amusement, George would recount how he and Norma had been chummy in the old days and had run in the same circles. While George would say that Norma was, indeed, a fine lady, he would stipulate that this was only until she had had her third drink. As he put it: "She was wonderful. Until the third drink, she had the manners of a princess. Courted, she was like a Queen. Third drink, she'd pee on the floor." Groucho loved that part.