Familiar Faces #9: Stooges, Chorus Lines, and Ethelreda Leopold!

She may not have been as prolific as Hollywood’s “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers, but once you’ve discovered Ethelreda Leopold, you’ll find the blonde beauty popping up everywhere, mainly in uncredited roles. Three Stooges fans certainly know of her work, as she appeared in eleven of their Columbia shorts, but there’s a whole lot more Ethelreda out there in classic film land!

Ethelreda (3rd from right) in 1934’s “Dames”

The girl with the unique name (‘Ethelreda’ is from Olde English, meaning ‘of noble strength’) was born in Chicago on July 7, 1914. She was working as a teenage model, and doing very well, when she was discovered by a Warner Brothers talent scout and brought out to Hollywood. Ethelreda made her debut as one of the chorus girls in Busby Berkeley’s 1934 extravaganza DAMES, and became one of Busby’s busiest girls. She can be seen in the chorus in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, STAGE STRUCK, VARSITY SHOW, HOLLYWOOD HOTEL, SWEETHEARTS, and GOLD DIGGERS OF PARIS.

The Busby Berkeley Girls in “Gold Diggers of 1935”

The latter film found Ethelreda voted “Most Popular” Berkeley Girl (out of 109!), and the studio sent her on a promotional tour that included a stop in New York, where the writer H. Allen Smith made a nervous attempt to take her measurements (it’s a funny story and can be found by following this link!).

Grooming the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Ethelreda can be spotted in many classic films of the day, mostly uncredited: MY MAN GODFREY, MARKED WOMAN, THE WIZARD OF OZ (helping groom   Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion!), DANCING CO-ED, THE RAGE OF PARIS, CITY FOR CONQUEST, HE STAYED FOR BREAKFAST, ANGELS OVER BROADWAY, BALL OF FIRE, SABOTEUR , WORDS AND MUSIC, ALL ABOUT EVE, and many more. She had a bigger role (billed as ‘Ethel’ Leopold) in the 1938 exploitation film RACE SUICIDE, dealing with an illegal abortion racket and produced by Willis Kent, who made a bunch of these type of things (THE PACE THAT KILLS, THE ROAD TO RUIN, SMASHING THE VICE TRUST, CONFESSIONS OF A VICE BARON, and the immortal COCAINE FIENDS!).

Taking dictation in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940)

Besides choruses and background beauty, Ethelreda made her mark in comedy, working with all the great comedians, including Abbott & Costello Charlie Chaplin (THE GREAT DICTATOR), Andy Clyde, W.C. Fields (YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN), Bob Hope , Harry Langdon, Laurel & Hardy The Marx Brothers (A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA), Olsen & Johnson (HELLZAPOPPIN’, CRAZY HOUSE), and The Ritz Brothers . But it’s her work with The Three Stooges she’s fondly remembered for by Knuckleheads everywhere! Her first was 1936’s A PAIN IN THE PULLMAN, where she’s one of the chorus girls on a train kept awake by The Stooges’ madcap antics.

With Curly Howard in “Wee Wee Monsieur” (1938)

In HALF SHOT SHOOTERS (’36) she’s just a (pretty) face in the crowd, and  GOOFS AND SADDLES (1937) finds Ethelreda as a saloon girl out West, encountering Wild Bill Hiccup (Moe), Just Plain Bill (Larry), and Buffalo Billious (Curly). In BACK TO THE WOODS (’37) she’s a Colonial maiden, WEE WEE MONSIEUR (1938) casts her as a harem girl, CALLING ALL CURS (1939) a nurse to the boy’s wacky veterinarians, NUTTY BUT NICE (1940) as a waitress, ALL THE WORLD’S A STOOGE (1941) a party guest (with the boys hired to dress and act like children – not a stretch!), MATRI-PHONY (1942) she’s Miss Syracuse in Ancient Rome.

Let the pies fly! “In the Sweet Pie and Pie” (1941)

Her two biggest Stooge appearences are among the team’s best shorts. IN THE SWEET PIE AND PIE (1941) has Ethereda as Baska, who along with her sisters Tiska (Dorothy Appleby) and Taska (Mary Ainslee) get married to three condemned convicts in order to claim an inheritance. The plan backfires when the boys are pardoned, and the girls do whatever it takes to get divorced – namely insisting they become high society gentlemen! The craziness culminates in a wild pie fight (The Stooges’ first!) and Ethelreda here was more than willing to take one for the team – a pie, that is! G.I. WANNA HOME (1946) finds The Stooges returning from WWII to their sweeties Bessie (Doris Houck), Tessie (Judy Malcolm), and Jessie (Ethelreda) and attempting to build a home for them all to live in, with the expected disastrous results!

A more mature but still beautiful Ethelreda Leopold

After a 1953 appearance on TV’s THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW, Ethelreda disappeared from screens both large and small. She seems to have slipped into a life a domesticity with husband Joseph Pine, a hotel executive, and son Victor. It wasn’t until ten years later that she returned to acting – with a vengeance! Ethelreda’s list of TV credits reads like a Television Hall of Fame: HAZEL, BONANZA, BATMAN , THE MONKEES , THAT GIRL, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , IT TAKES A THIEF, BEWITCHED, MARY TYLER MOORE , THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY (4 episodes), RHODA, THE A-TEAM, HART TO HART, DYNASTY (6 episodes). Older but still attractive, Ethelreda graced many a film during this time as well: THE KILLERS (Ronald Reagan’s last movie), TWO ON A GUILLOTINE , HARUM SCARUM, MARRIAGE ON THE ROCKS, THE OSCAR, I LOVE YOU ALICE B. TOKLAS, HELLFIGHTERS, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN . Wherever there was a need for a sophisticated older woman, Ethelreda was there!

Ethelreda meets Al & Peg Bundy on “Married With Children”

Her last acting credit was an episode of MARRIED WITH CHILDREN in 1989, with Al Bundy and his lowbrow brood having a night out at a swanky restaurant! A year later, Ethelreda made a personal appearance as guest of honor at a Three Stooges Convention in Philadelphia, where she was a big hit with fandom and treated like a star. She died of pneumonia in 1998, but her legacy lives on; just watch any classic movie or TV show, and there’s a good chance Ethelreda Leopold will pop up! I don’t even think IMDB has all her complete credits listed, so keep a sharp eye out for that beautiful young blonde or elegant older woman in the background. Now that you know about Ethelreda, happy hunting!

From 1940’s “Angels Over Broadway”

 

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The Holy Grail of Bad Cinema: THE PHYNX (Warner Brothers 1970)

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(WARNING: The movie I’m about to review is so bad, I can’t even find a proper poster for it. Beware… )

I was so excited when I  found out TCM was airing THE PHYNX at 4:00am!  I’d heard about how bad it for years now, and couldn’t wait to view it for myself today on my trusty DVR. I wasn’t disappointed, for THE PHYNX is a truly inept movie, so out of touch with its audience… and just what is its audience? We’ve got a Pre-Fab rock band, spy spoof shenanigans, wretched “comedy”, and cameos from movie stars twenty years past their prime. Just who was this movie made for, anyway?

The film defies description, but I’ll give it a whirl because, well because that’s what I do! We begin as a secret agent attempts to crash into Communist Albania in unsuccessful and unfunny ways, then segue into some psychedelic cartoons credits, also unfunny. Agent Corrigan (Lou Antonio)has failed, and his boss Bogey (Mike Kellin doing a terrible Humphrey Bogart impression) convenes a meeting of the Super Secret Agency. The agents are disguised as hookers, KKK members, student protesters and riot-squad police, Madison Avenue Ad Men, and even Boy Scouts. Oh, the hilarity! Number One addresses the crowd; his identity’s hidden by a box covering his head, and his voice is Rich Little impersonating Jimmy Stewart (no, I’m not making this shit up!).

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Albania’s strongman has taken “important world figures” hostage. Namely, George Jessel, Butterfly McQueen, Colonel Sanders, and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller… you know, really “important world figures”! Ideas like “parachuting Bob Hope into Albania” are shot down, and the agency goes to MOTHA for help. That’s MOTHA, “Mechanical Oracle That Helps America”, a sexy super-computer with a huge pair of antenna:

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Careful, you’ll poke your eye out! MOTHA comes up with a plan to create a “pop music group and get invited to Albania”. One of the scouts thinks “pop rock secret agents is a capital idea”, so the SSA rounds up four young dudes to star in their spy show. There’s a nerdy campus protester dude, a studly surfer-type dude, a “young Negro, uh colored guy.. African-American” dude, and a Native American dude fresh from college whose dad states, “White man turn son pansy”. Again, I’m not making this shit up!

The four are taken to a secret SSA installation, and train to become rock star spies. Sgt. Clint Walker teaches them discipline, Harold “Oddjob” Sakata karate, Richard Pryor “soul” (presumably by cooking soul food!), and Trini Lopez music. They’re given instruments to learn and yes, of course the black guy’s the drummer! After passing muster by none other than Dick Clark (who pronounces them “unbelievable, freaked out, kookoo”), the agency sends for uber-rock producer Philbaby (Larry Hankin, who’s actually funny as a Phil Specter type), along with his assistant, Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet.

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The Phynx cut a record called “What is Your Sign?” that’s pretty fucking bad. And I don’t mean “bad” as in badass.. I mean it totally sucks!  The SSA gets right to work promoting the boys, starting at the top with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, holding the venerable TV host at gunpoint while he introduces them! The hype is on as SSA agents dressed as 20’s gangsters take over record stores, spelling out PHYNX in machine-gun bullet script. President Nixon changes Thanksgiving to Phynxgiving, and the U.S. Mint begins printing out $3 bills with the band’s mugs plastered on them. James Brown presents the group with a gold record for “the largest selling album in the history of the world”!

Now that The Phynx are ready, the government throws them the world’s tamest orgy, and after another lame tune, the boys head to Europe. They must uncover a secret three part map tattooed on the bellies of the three nubile daughters of Martha Raye. Yes, I said Martha Raye! The girls are scattered across the continent, so it’s off to London, Copenhagen, and Rome. London’s easy, Copenhagen finds them performing sex with thousands of blondes, and in Rome they use their secret weapon.. X-Ray Specs! Honestly, I am NOT making this shit up!

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Now it’s off to Albania at the request of Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara) to help celebrate National Flower Day. The Albanian national flower is a radish. Let that sink in… a radish. Our intrepid heroes tunnel into the palace of the president and first lady (George Tobias, Joan Blondell) and their “hip” son, who speaks in 40’s hepcat slang and is president of the Albanian Rock and Roll Appreciation Society. At last we learn the truth about the missing celebrities.It seems American born Blondell misses her country, and since they can’t leave Albania, they decided to bring washed-up American stars to them! Oh, NOW it makes perfect sense!

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The Phynx perform before the assembled body of guests, and what a guest list. Take a deep breath: Patty Andrews, Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy), Busby Berkeley (with the original Golddiggers), Xavier Cugat (and his Orchestra!), Cass Daley, Andy Devine, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (wearing what looks like their original Monogram Bowery Boys outfits!), Louis Hayward, George Jessel, Ruby Keeler, boxing champ Joe Louis, Marilyn Maxwell, Butterfly McQueen, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Weissmuller, and The Lone Ranger (John Hart) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels). What, Clayton Moore was busy that week, so they had to settle for Hart?

The band plays a ungroovy patriotic tune that has the crowd in tears. Now they all realize they must get back to the good ol’ USA. Huntz Hall comes up with the master escape plan. Let THAT one sink in.. Huntz Hall has the master plan! (And no, I’m STILL not making this shit up!!) The stars hide in carts pulling the national radishes, while The Phynx play their concert. An army of rock fans armed with guitars are able to crumble the wall of Albania with sonic noise, and the pop culture stars escape Communism and are free! Rock and roll saves the world once again!

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The music in THE PHYNX was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, architects of early rock and doo-wop. Unfortunately, times had changed, and the tunes are hopelessly out of date, even for 1970. Even the psychedelic-style song they penned is about three years too late. Lee H. Katzin gets (dis)credit for directing this nonsense, though it doesn’t seem like he did much of anything except say “Action!” and “Cut! Print it!”. The screenplay by Stan Cornyn contains some of the most putrid dialog you’ll ever hear, save for one cute moment between Weissmuller and O’Sullivan that film fans will dig. Warner Brothers quickly pulled the plug on THE PHYNX when it was first released; it’s now achieved cult status and is available on DVD through Warner Archives. I think I’ve finally figured out who the audience for this mess is- bad film connoisseurs like me, who can’t wait to sit through it and pick it apart again!

(FYI- The Phynx were A. Michael Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden, and Lonnie Stevens. Larden was in the mid-60’s band Every Mother’s Son, and had a hit with “Come On Down to My Boat”. Stevens is active as an acting coach. I have no information on the other two Phynx…nor do I particularly care!!)

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

Batter Up!: TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (MGM 1949)

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The National Pastime is just a frame for TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to hang its picture in. That’s okay though, because producer Arthur Freed and the MGM Musical Dream Factory put together a rollicking, colorful romp with turn of the (20th) century baseball as an excuse to let Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, and company razzle-dazzle us with plenty of songs, dancing, romancing, and comedy.

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There’s not much of a plot in this outing. The World Champion Wolves are at spring training, awaiting the arrival of star diamond duo Eddie O’Brien and Denny Ryan, who’re off on a vaudeville tour. Eddie (Kelly) is a skirt chaser with Broadway dreams, while Denny’s (Sinatra) a shy, geeky guy who lives and breathes baseball. They get to camp just in time to hear the Wolves’ owner has died and left the club to his only relative, K.C. Higgins (Williams), who happens to be (gasp!) a girl! Eddie makes a poor first impression on K.C., so you just know they’ll end up together. Denny’s being chased by fan Shirley Delwyn (Garrett), who’s involved with a crooked gambler (Edward Arnold). Romantic complications and skullduggery ensue, but everything works out in the end, with Kelly, Sinatra, Williams, and Garrett breaking the Fourth Wall to reprise the rousing tune “Strictly USA”.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wrote the story for the film as a bullpen session for their later collaborations (ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN). Freed wasn’t ready to let the duo bat as directors, so he hired pinch hitter Busby Berkeley, the crafty veteran responsible for early hits like 42ND STREET, DAMES, and the GOLDDIGGERS series. This was Berkeley’s last credited film as director, though he did choreograph a handful of others in the 50’s. Kelly and Donen did handle the dance numbers here though, showcasing Kelly’s physical style. I especially enjoyed his exuberant tap number celebrating his Irish heritage on “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore”:

There are nine musical numbers in all, including the rip-roaring “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”, featuring third banana Jules Munshin, who costarred with Kelly and Sinatra in ON THE TOWN, along with Garrett. Esther Williams even gets some brief pool time, swimming along while singing the title tune. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, Richard Lane and Tom Dugan lend able support as the team manager and his coach. Familiar Face spotters will note Murray Alper, Douglas Fowley , Henry Kulky, Gordon Jones, and Sally Forrest . And yes, that’s Danny Kaye in a cameo as a train passenger sitting behind Kelly and Sinatra.

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If you like classic musicals and baseball (and I do), then TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME is a solid, bases-clearing triple. Filled with toe tapping songs and silly slapstick bits (thanks to uncredited gagman Buster Keaton), it’s as American as apple pie and “Strictly USA”. And who can argue with that?