Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mitzi Green & George Jessel

On May 24, 1969, actress Mitzi Green died. She was born Elizabeth Keno on October 22, 1920 in the Bronx, New York. Green was a child actress for Paramount and RKO, in the early talkie era and wascast in conventional juvenile parts as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931) opposite Jackie Coogan and Jackie Searl. She also starred in the title role of Little Orphan Annie. At the age of 14, she also appeared in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934). This film closed out the first stage of her Hollywood career. She went on to Broadway, where she starred in the original production of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms (1937). Two of Green's numbers in the musical were "My Funny Valentine," which would ultimately become a jazz standard in many cover recordings and performances, and "The Lady is a Tramp.” Green made one more film in 1940, then went back to stage and nightclub work, including Walk With Music by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer and the Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Billion Dollar Baby.

Green married Broadway (and later movie and TV) director Joseph Pevney and retired to raise a family. In 1951, she returned briefly to the screen opposite Abbott and Costello in Lost in Alaska (1951) and in Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952 film) co-starring another Mitzi--Mitzi Gaynor. In 1955, she starred with Virginia Gibson and Gordon Jones in the short-lived TV sitcom So This Is Hollywood, in the role of Queenie Dugan, a high-spirited stuntwoman. After a brief stint on the nightclub circuit, Green retired again, although she did appear in summer stock and dinner theater around the Los Angeles area thereafter, and she appeared occasionally as a guest on talk shows. On May 24, 1969, Green died of cancer at age 48 in Huntington Beach, California. She is buried at Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.

On May 24, 1981, George Jessel died. He was a multitalented comedic entertainer, achieving a level of recognition that transcended his limited roles in movies. He was widely known by his nickname, the "Toastmaster General of the United States" for his frequent role as the master of ceremonies at political and entertainment gatherings. Jessel was born in the Bronx on April 3, 1898. By age 10, he was appearing in vaudeville and on Broadway. His mother, who worked as a ticket seller at the Imperial Theater, helped him form The Imperial Trio, a harmony group of ushers to entertain patrons of the theater, with Walter Winchell and Jack Wiener, using the stage names Leonard, Lawrence and McKinley, in their early teens. At age 11, he was a partner of Eddie Cantor in a kid sketch and performed with him on stage until he outgrew the role at age 16. He later partnered with Lou Edwards and then began a solo performer. His most famous comedy skit was called "Hello Mama" or "Phone Call from Mama", which portrayed a one-sided telephone conversation. In 1919 he produced his own solo show, "George Jessel's Troubles" and appeared in his first motion picture, the silent movie The Other Man's Wife. He co-wrote the lyrics for a hit tune, "Oh How I Laugh When I Think How I Cried About You", and performed in several successful comedy stage shows in the early 1920s. In 1921 he recorded a hit single, "The Toastmaster.”

In 1924, he appeared in a brief comedy sketch, possibly the telephone sketch described above, in a short film made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. In 1925, he emerged as one of the most popular leading men on Broadway with the starring role in the stage production of The Jazz Singer. The success of the show prompted Warner Bros., after their success with Don Juan (1926) with music and sound effects only to adapt the The Jazz Singer as the first "talkie" with dialogue and to cast Jessel in the lead role. However, when the studio refused his salary demands, Jessel turned down the movie role, which was eventually played by Al Jolson.
Jessel was the host of the 1937 Academy Awards ceremony held at the Biltmore Hotel. While passing out awards, he was heard to say, “Please keep your thank-yous short, and remember a fellow gave up the British Empire in two minutes.” This was in reference to the resent abdication of King Edward VIII of England. Jessel made a huge gaffe, when he presented the best actress award to Luise Rainer. That honor was supposed to go to Bette Davis, the previous year’s recipient. A furious Bette Davis found Jessel back stage and berated him on his lack of etiquette.

In the middle 1940s, he began producing musicals for 20th Century Fox, producing 24 films in all in a career that lasted through the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time he became known as a host on the banquet circuit, famous for his good-natured wit aimed at his fellow celebrities. In 1946, he was one of the founding members of the California branch of the Friars Club. He also traveled widely overseas with the USO entertaining troops. As he grew older, he wrote eulogies for many of his contemporaries in Hollywood. He wrote three volumes of memoirs, So Help Me (1943), This Way, Miss (1955), and The World I Lived In (1975).

In the 1930s, his personal life kept him in the public eye as much as his movies. He had notorious affairs with actresses Pola Negri, Helen Morgan and Lupe VĂ©lez (all detailed in his 1975 autobiography The World I Lived In). It was around this time, while emceeing a vaudeville show in Chicago, he decided to introduce a sister act, The Gumm Sisters, to laughs from the audience. When he reintroduced the singing trio as The Garland Sisters (after Carole Lombard's character in the film Twentieth Century) the name stuck. Youngest sister Frances named herself Judy after a popular Rudy Vallee song and became a legendary star. In 1934, Jessel married silent movie star Norma Talmadge, causing a scandal because Talmadge was married at the time that they started their affair. After their divorce in 1939, he caused further scandal by breaking into her house with a pistol and firing shots at her current lover.

In the early 1950s he performed on the radio in The George Jessel Show, which became a television show of the same name from 1953 to 1954. Jessel was the emcee on the short-lived The Comeback Story, a 1954 reality show on ABC in which mostly celebrities shared stories of having overcome adversities in their personal lives. He was replaced as emcee by Arlene Francis, but the program soon folded. Thereafter, Jessel guest starred on NBC's The Jimmy Durante Show. In 1968 he starred in Here Come the Stars, a syndicated variety show. Jessel also appeared as himself in Valley of the Dolls in 1968.

Famous in his youth for his affairs with starlets, he also became known for keeping company with a wide assortment of younger show girls, even into his old age. By the late 1960s he had gained a reputation as being overly self-indulgent in reminiscing about former companions who were little known by younger audiences. Walter Winchell once said of him, "That son of a bitch started to reminisce when he was eight years old." In response, Jessel stated that "I have a funeral speech ready for Winchell. I hope it starts in fifteen minutes." He had achieved a somewhat iconic status, representing a Hollywood of yore, such that he extended his career by playing himself, rather than characters, as in the camp movie version of Valley of the Dolls (1968). His last movie role was in Diary of a Young Comic in 1979. Jessel died of a heart attack on May 24, 1981 at the age of 83 in Los Angeles and is buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

http://www.michaelthomasbarry.com/, author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

No comments:

Post a Comment