Last week, I shared with you my enthusiasm for the opening sequence of So Long Letty, the film through which I first became aware of the remarkable stage, screen, and radio performer, Charlotte Greenwood. My feelings towards the film’s conclusion was more ambivalent. Most of the comedian comedies of the period, those featuring male performers, end on moments of maximum disruption — on a final anarchistic burst of energy that sometimes literally brings the house down. Think about the final moments from some of the Marx Brothers vehicles of this period. So Long Letty, on the other hand, ends on a moment of over-stated domesticity. Here’s what I wrote about it in What Made Pistachio Nuts?:
So Long Letty ends with a dinner party, one contrasting sharply in its formality and sobriety to the wild party Letty threw just a few scenes before. The entire cast has gathered around the table with Uncle Claude seated at its head, smiling benevolently at his gathered relatives and friends. The prune-faced patriarch has at last been shown proper respect by the once-terrible woman. The young granddaughters announce their engagement to two men they met only a few scenes before; the uncle looks upon it all with approval. He even invites his now much-beloved niece to act as a chaperon for his granddaughter’s impending trip to Europe, though she refuses in order to remain at her husband’s side. All lift glasses and join in a reprise of “So Long Letty,” a slow sentimental ballad strikingly different from the more jazzy numbers associated with Greenwood. Letty has accommodated herself to the demands of her husband and her uncle, having learned quite literally to sing a different tune.
A highly unsatisfying resolution, the exaggerated domesticity of this concluding scene and the abruptness with which it was obtained weakens its ability to restrain Letty’s subversiveness. Letty seems to be robbed of a victory over her husband and uncle that generic conventions suggest she richly deserves… In the film’s final scenes, however, Greenwood’s performance still pushes against domestic containment. It is Letty, not the uncle, who presides over the table, offering toasts and dominating the dinner discourse. When the Uncle urges her to accompany his nieces to Europe, she initially babbles about ‘mud packs in Paris,’ before dutifully rejecting the offer. Her hesitation suggests that she retains the desires that had earlier led to her rebelliousness. When Letty joins in the chorus, she does so with the loud voice and broad gestures that have accompanied the other musical numbers, even as she sings about her own capitulation to male demands,”So Long Letty.” Moreover, Uncle Claude seems looser, more lively here, as if he has been revitalized through his encounters with Letty; the capitulation may not have been entirely one-sided. Finally, it is significant, given the alignment of narrative with masculinity and performance with femininity, that the film ends on a note of performance, the singing of “So Long Letty,” which simultaneously creates a narrative unity between the opposing terms. The song reconciles, if imperfectly, narrative and performance just as it reconciles, if imperfectly, male restraint and female pleasure. Even Uncle Claude, the motor of the narrative action, now joyfully joins the musical performance.
Grant Hayter-Menzies, the author of the recently released Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of The Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film, offers a somewhat different take on the film’s ending, which he repeats in the interview below. (I wish that the sequencewas up on YouTube so I could share it with you to make your own judgment.) To some degree, the differences in our interpretation are ones of emphasis. My analysis of the scene suggests some ways that Letty continues to assert a strong presence on the level of performance even if the narrative shows her seeming acceptance of male demands. I was reading the scene through a focus on genre, while Hayter-Menzies reads it in the larger context of Greenwood’s career. This is one of the ways that his book helped me to place this film inside the body of her work in new ways.
As this interview also suggests, the book sheds light on many other important entertainment personalities. Here, I am especially interested in her work with Eddie Cantor (see this clip from Palmy Days to see how well the chemistry clicked between them).
Pulling this post together, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much Greenwood material is out there on the web — especially on YouTube. Collectors are making obscure clips more readily available to the public. I had to trek to the archives to see some of these performances; you can at least sample them in your own homes. You can also sample performances by some of the other female clowns I wrote about in my book — see for example this segment of Winnie Lightner . Unfortunately, I had no such luck finding any of the comic performances of Lupe Velez, another female clown, whose work I discuss in The Wow Climax.
You and I have some disagreement about the ending of the film version of So Long Letty. I have tended to see it as the capitulation of a powerful, free spirited woman to patriarchal authority, where-as you see Letty as manipulating things to the very end. Can you share your perspective on the film’s ending?
I believe Charlotte’s 1929 Letty is a woman of infinite resourcefulness, who far from being a disturber of the peace, actually is in control of the chaos she creates. This was a characterization Charlotte excelled at and would play, at various strengths, throughout her stage and screen career. The maternal instinct which glows in the role of Aunt Eller was, in Charlotte’s youth, sort of like the Lucy personality from The Peanuts: she was the bossy big girl who in having her way created chaos for other people, but who was herding the sheep in the direction she wanted even as she was scaring them. The scene where Letty tells Uncle Claude that she is actually pregnant–answering his greatest wish–seems to me to be the final charm from Letty’s big bag of tricks. She knows that there is no other way to repair the mess things are in except to meet Uncle Claude on his own terms, in his own language–telling him what he wants to hear, which is not a form of capitulation but of control. And for this reason I believe Letty, who presides over the celebratory dinner at the end of the film, is still very much in charge–a wiser Letty, if you will, but in no way a diminished one.
Greenwood worked with Eddie Cantor several times in the course of her career. What can you tell us about their relationship? What accounts for the chemistry they displayed on screen together?
Charlotte and Eddie Cantor were, as I’ve pointed out, two of the twentieth century’s most popular comedians, but both had originally had no intention of going in the way of comedy. Cantor wanted to be a serious singer, as did Charlotte. Both came to comedy by accident, and both went with comedy because it was what gave them the greatest success. I believe this is part of what made for such a charming screen partnership. Charlotte also loved Cantor’s family life, which was quite normal (he and his wife produced all girls), where he was the father, their children had a home-keeping mother, they ate dinner together every night, and so forth. That totally drew Charlotte’s admiration and respect.
Greenwood worked with Buster Keaton on Bedroom, Parlor and Bath, at a moment when his career was undergoing rapid decline and the silent clown was giving
way to alcoholism. What do we know about Greenwood’s perspectives on working
with Keaton during this period?
I wish I could say that I found something in Charlotte’s memoirs that would shed new light on what it was like working with a great comic of the silents in decline in the talkies. But Charlotte was not particularly interested in film work (she abandoned Hollywood at the height of her fame, in 1933, for the London stage), and other than a few anecdotes about working with Keaton, or with Bert Lahr or Eddie Cantor, she does not give much space to her film work. She does record how in the big lovemaking scene with Keaton in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, they made such violence together she ended up with a bloody mouth and he with a black eye. Beyond that, what happened before the cameras was not a big deal to her. The only actor she was paired with that she writes of wanting to work with again was Jack Oakie–and they never worked together again after making Shirley Temple’s final Fox film together, Young People (1940).
Greenwood was a physically adept performer. How did her embrace of women’s athleticism become part of the promotion for her performances? What do we know about her attitudes towards feminism more generally?
Excellent question about feminism and athleticism, because Charlotte seemed to believe they went hand in hand–she strongly supported women’s rights as well as the rights of women performers (she was one of the charter members of Actors’ Equity in 1913), and she had nothing but disgust for men who two-timed or took advantage of women who loved them. (She had been hurt badly by the adultery of her first husband, Cyril Ring, to the point of never writing a single word about him or their marriage in her memoirs.) And Charlotte believed that part of a woman’s strength was that she must keep herself physically fit, ready for whatever any man could throw at her. I include at the end of the book an exercise regimen Charlotte intended to be part of her memoirs, had they been published, the upshot of which is that the body be kept limber–no need to explain why this particular comic dancer needed an elastic body!
Greenwood was a deeply religious woman. How did she reconcile her beliefs with being part of the entertainment industry at a time when actresses did not enjoy a high degree of social respectibility?
Like her good friend Billie Burke, whose biography I am now writing, Charlotte was able to be religious, or at least deeply devoted to a religious belief, and still swim well in the “sinful” waters of Hollywood or New York, and I think, again, it had to do with the essentially nonjudgmental atmosphere of their early theatre training. Charlotte writes of being done her first kind service, as an awkward fifteen year old who had tripped in a hotel lobby, spilling her luggage and a potted plant, by the star Eva Tanguay, who did not laugh at her lying there on the floor but helped her up, at the same time remarking on her beautiful eyes. Everyone else–everyone out in the ordinary world, that is–had always laughed and jeered at this gangly girl. That meeting with Tanguay, Charlotte says, was when she knew that theatre people were her people, that they would never laugh at her but would always be there to support and help, and that ideal never died–even as she was herself always there for young performers, to help and advise and nurture, as she did with Shirley Jones in Oklahoma!
Part of Charlotte’s high regard for the theatre was that what made all those people out there happy must be something almost sacred, which to her it was, even when prancing through the homoerotic antics of Porter’s Out of This World or singing risquÃ© songs in her Letty plays or doing “Her Morning Bath” routine on vaudeville, which essentially was a sort of threatened but never achieved striptease routine. These made happy the people who had paid good money to come see her perform, and Charlotte always saw this as a great privilege on her part. She never took her audiences for granted. So she did not judge, as far as I can see, what it was they laughed at, or what she said, sang or pantomimed to give them that pleasure.
Why do you think Greenwood has largely disappeared from popular memory when many
of her contemporaries — Fanny Brice or Ethel Merman, say — still exert such a
vivid influence on the public imagination?
Fanny Brice had the immortalizing good fortune of being a Ziegfeld Follies star, as well as being the subject of several films and television productions detailing her roller-coaster love life. Merman kept going strong well past middle age, even turning out a disco album, and starred in some major hits. Charlotte made comparatively few films, had few monumental hits on Broadway, had a very specialized set of gimmicks, and only really did what she wanted to–she had made a lot of money in the 1920′s and invested it well. Much of her best work, per the critics, was on stage, where even the greatest performances evaporate as soon as the show is over. One of my most abiding intentions in writing this book was to breathe life back into that vanished world of Charlotte’s stage work–that world where she was happiest, where she was able to be the actress and not always the clown.