While I was doing my dissertation on early sound comedy, I would book time as often as possible at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which has one of the best film archives in the country. Over the four years I lived in Madison, I was able to work my way through most of the comedies produced by Warner Brothers and RKO in the late 1920s and early 1930s. My goal had been to extend the discussion of early sound comedy beyond the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields to include a range of now largely forgotten performers who had made their way to Hollywood via Vaudeville and the Broadway Revues. One day, I happened to book a film called So Long Letty, knowing nothing about its lead performer, Charlotte Greenwood, other than that she had been a stage performer before appearing briefly on the screen.
By the end of the first sequence, I knew I had made a real discovery. I can share some of what I saw through the magic of YouTube! Someone has kindly posted some segments from this film. So Long Letty and Charlotte Greenwood ended up being a key case study for my book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic.
Earlier this year, I got e-mail from Grant Hayter-Menzies, an art and music critic living in British Columbia, letting me know he was publishing a biography of Greenwood for MacFarland Press. Now that Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio, and Film has been published, I wanted to share with you some of his perspectives on this remarkable and now largely forgotten female performer. As the title suggests, she was a transmedia personality, probably best known in her own time for her stage performances, but someone who did memorable work on screen and on radio.
Here’s a brief segment from my account of her career and personality:
Claude Gillingwater’s balding head and sunken eyes make his Uncle Claude the very image of a fossilized patriarchal order. His slow, stiff movements and nasal speech contrast sharply with Greenwood’s rapid-fire delivery and rambunctious gestures. With her ear-piercing voice and thrashing movements, her lack of respect for proper authority and her steady stream of slang and wisecracks, Letty is a dreadful negation of everything he regards to be proper and ladylike: ‘Take my advice and don’t become too intimate with that terrible woman,’ he warns his nephew. What is different about So Long Letty is the surprising way in which the film reverses the normal assignment of gender roles in this scenario. We are offered here a sequence in which a spontainous woman liberates two young women from the control of male authority and invites them to pursue their own pleasure. Letty’s engaging performance encourages spectators to judge and ridicule the stiff old man through the eyes of three lively young women in a reversal of the tripartite structure — male jester, female object, male audience — that Freud saw as characteristic of the smut joke. The woman, by becoming the clown and casting the patriarch in the traditional killjoy role, forces the anarchistic scenario to speak for female resistance, offering women utopian possibilities most other comedian comedies reserve for men only….
Letty spends her time at the Ardmore Hotel, earning free beauty treatments by drumming up new customers for the salon. What makes Letty “so hot that my husband can’t get fire insurance,” as she brags at one point, is her willingness to put her own bodily pleasure (and her economic self-sufficiency) over her wifely duties; she abandons her home to “rack and ruin” while she indulges her desires for physical pampering…Ironically those traits that make Letty such a frustration for her husband and a threat to his uncle are precisely those qualities that make her such a delight to the audience — Greenwood’s directness and vitality, her high energy style, her flamboyant gestures and loud voice, her colorful use of language, and especially her unorthodox physicality. Greenwood was a woman who relished her mastery over her own body, frequently challenging local women (and sometimes, men) to footraces as part of the publicity for her vaudeville tours and generally offering women a model for a more fit and limber style of femininity….Alexander Woollcott described Greenwood’s performance style in a 1919 review of Linger Longer Letty, one of a series of Letty plays she performed on Broadway and n tour throughout the 1920s: “The lanky Charlotte sings and romps and bays at the moon. She steps over high walls and walks on all fours and strokes the ceiling.” A publicity flier for one of her stage appearances features a cartoon of Greenwood, her face dominated by enormous eyes and mouth, and her long arms, crossed, dangling limply in front of her thin body. Greenwood herself often bragged that she was ‘the only woman in the world could kick a giraffe in the eye.’ Such representations capture both the illusion of gracelessness and the display of virtuosity that made her such a fascinating performer.
As Letty, Greenwood exploits many of these same qualities. In one scene, Letty, juggling a huge pile of packages that block her vision, steps effortlessly over a white picket fence, a movement underscored by exaggerated creaking sounds and by her bungling husband’s inability to cross this same fence without tripping. Letty slides down the hallway of the Ardmore hotel, using her outstretched leg to spin her around when she comes to the corner. She paces about her house, crossing the room in only a few strides, and when she dances at the party, her arms and legs seem to fly off in all directions. She stands, bowlegged, her knees bent slightly and her arms dangling limp or flung broadly to focus attention on their length. Her gestures and movements are too large-scale to be comfortably contained within the domestic spaces where the men wish her to remain, suggesting a high-spiritedness and spontanaety that will resist all restraint (self-imposed or otherwise). Greenwood’s enthusiastic acceptance of her own odd appearance transforms what could be a pathetic or threatening figure into a celebration of spontaneity and self-confidence. Greenwood is most attractive and engaging in those sequences where she strays the furthest from the norms of traditional feminine behavior and causes the broadest disruption of the patriarchal order (her humiliation of Uncle Claude in the opening scene, her ‘clowning’ in the party sequence.”
As I have learned more about her memorable performances in The Gangs All Here and Oklahoma, I’ve discovered that she maintains some of this same vigor and physicality well into her mature years, offering not just a limber image of femininity but also an alternative image of maturity. Check out this remarkable sequence from The Gangs All Here where an older Greenwood teaches a young man a thing or two about how to do the jitterbug.
In this interview, Grant Hayter-Menzies tells us more about his efforts to focus more attention on a performer who is increasingly being written out of the history of American show business. Enjoy!
Your introduction begins with Charlotte Greenwood’s performance as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma for good reason since I’ve found that if she is recalled at all today, it is for her work in that film. Why do you think this has become her most memorable screen appearance? What place did this film have in the context of her career as a whole?
As I point out in my book, the role of Aunt Eller not only came to Charlotte Greenwood with perfect timing–after a career of fifty years, when she had had as much experience of living, and then some, as the character she played–but also for two other reasons. The role called on everything Charlotte did well: comedy, drama, singing, dancing, which by that point in her career had achieved the ultimate in comic timing, emotional depth, and sheer characterful panache. Charlotte also had by that time many role models in her memories to call on as inspiration: the most powerful of them was her mother, Annabelle Higgins Greenwood, a hard-working woman who heroically brought up this girl abandoned by her father in infancy, a child racked by sicknesses and challenged by constantly interrupted schooling, who bequeathed to Charlotte not just her imposing physical looks but her ramrod strength of character. Charlotte also emulated friends like actress Jobyna Howland, who was tall, not conventionally pretty, often of battering ram aspect, but always warm, wise and witty.
These are all reasons why Charlotte Greenwood is so fondly remembered as Aunt Eller because these are all details of the portrait Charlotte paints of her. Perhaps, though, the most important reason Charlotte is remembered for this role is her compelling skills as an actor. If you can watch this film and not sense Charlotte Greenwood’s presence even in scenes that don’t include her, you aren’t paying attention.
Most people don’t realize that Greenwood enjoyed an extended and high profile career on stage, film, and radio, before appearing in Oklahoma. What can we learn about the interconnectedness of the American entertainment world in the early 20th century by studying the trajectory of her career?
I think the greatest lesson of Charlotte’s career is that a girl who had had only a few music or dance lessons, and no contact with the theatre outside the magazine articles she read, could by dint of sheer willpower and consuming love for the stage become a recognized star only a few years after her first appearance as a fifteen year old chorus girl in 1905.
I point out in my book that Charlotte was very much an accidental comedian. She had had no intention of becoming a funny girl–she wanted to be an opera singer, a great tragedienne, a balladeer. When comedy kept knocking (often knocking her over in the process), she finally gave in to it–much as did Eddie Cantor or Sophie Tucker, both of whom had originally wanted to have serious careers. As Charlotte wrote, “The greatest lesson to be learned as an actor is that of subjugation of self,” and she did that, to great acclaim as a comedy specialist. But all the while she was studying opera, taking acting lessons, reading great literature, developing discerning taste in art, and never giving up on her dream of becoming a serious dramatic artist (and lauded as such by critics who, as I write, normally did not waste ink on the less than worthy–Alexander Woollcott, James Agate, Hannen Swaffer, Amy Leslie, Claudia Cassidy).
Where radio is concerned Charlotte was a perfect fit, because if any radio star could act with her voice alone, it was she. She had studied serious vocal literature, but her singing voice was always as big, muscular and comic as her body, lacking all subtlety. Charlotte’s spoken voice, however, was full of shades of many colors. Once you heard her on The Charlotte Greenwood Show, you never forgot it, not least because it was, in time of war, a voice full of comfort and warmth and wisdom that rolled like a combination of mink and steel from the radio speaker. I think what made Charlotte so open to all the various entertainment media developed in the twentieth century was her stage training, which prepared you for whatever might be asked of you, under any circumstances. Those people of the theatre never knew what was waiting for them when the curtain parted, and like adepts of judo they knew how to go with the flow of energy, tacking their sails to whatever strength or direction public feeling happened to be blowing in, and harnessing it to their own benefit.
Charlotte’s first and last great love, however, was the theatre. She had worshipped in the holiest of the holies–the Victoria, the New Amsterdam, the Nixon, the Empire, the El Capitan, Drury Lane–and it just didn’t get better than that on earth, as far as she was concerned. It is the obsession of her memoirs, far above anything else she did in any other medium.
Central to the writing of this book was your discovery of an largely completed draft of an autobiography as well as other assorted correspondence that Greenwood had written through the years. Can you tell us how you came into contact with these materials and how they influenced your decision to write this book?
Just a few months before she died, in late 1977, Charlotte gave playwright William Luce a box containing most of her memoir materials: several manuscript drafts, typed and handwritten, hundreds of handwritten notes and letters, memorabilia and photos, which she hoped he could fashion into a stage work. Despite all her best efforts, up till the early 1950’s this veteran of half a century’s worth of entertainment experience and star of both stage and screen could not get any publisher interested in her life story. Bill Luce had known Charlotte and her husband, the songwriter Martin Broones, for almost twenty five years at that point–he had started out writing lyrics for Martin’s songs written for use by the Christian Science Church, and ended up the son they’d never had. Bill also inherited many things from Charlotte’s Beverly Hlls house–furniture, books, music, silver, crystal, you name it.
I knew Bill and his partner, the artist Ray Lewis, since I was in my teens; they had, in fact, adopted me in all but name, much as Charlotte and Martin had adopted Bill. I therefore grew up among Charlotte’s furniture and personal items, and had had ample opportunity to look through the box of memoir materials. These papers were in such a mess that, several years ago, I decided they needed organizing. As I did so, I realized that while the materials were not in such form as would make them publishable without heavy editing, they would make first class source materials for a long-overdue biography of Charlotte. Voila, I had found a dream project for my first biography.
I have pointed out that I grew up among Charlotte’s things, which is true, but I also learned that I was a writer living and traveling with Bill Luce, stage biographer par excellence. It was his gift (aided and abetted by Julie Harris, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer and others) to breathe life into Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Lillian Hellman and John Barrymore that gave me the inspiration and model for how to do so as an author. As a friend of long years standing of Charlotte’s and her husband’s, Bill was also an invaluable source of information about the real Charlotte and Martin–outside the articles or books or even Charlotte’s own memoirs–how they really lived at home. Bill can attest that the couple’s fame as one of the happiest married pairs in Hollywood was well earned.
Our correspondence suggests that you have become a collector of Greenwood related materials. What can you tell us about your collection? How were you able to get your hands on some of these materials?
The Greenwoodiana, as I call it, that I brought with me to my new home in Canada came to me through Bill Luce. He’d moved to a smaller house from the large oceanfront place he had on the Oregon coast, and did not want to sell these things outside the family. So he told me to bring a moving van down to his place, and I returned with it to Portland, where I was then living, with a whole Charlotte Greenwood Museum of things–everything from one of her velvet and gilt boudoir chairs to several of her Peking carpets, her sealskin opera cape, pieces of costumes from her film and stage work, jewelry, silver, glass, mirrors…. the list goes on and on. I really should write it all down.
So Long Letty, on both stage and screen, became closely associated with Greenwood, and she would appear in a number of stage plays with Letty in the title. What was the connection between these shows? Does she play the same or a similar character across them? What aspects of her personality did she bring to the part of Letty?
Charlotte’s Letty character got its start with a supporting role in the 1914 musical show, Pretty Mrs. Smith. Fritzi Scheff was the star, but Charlotte, who played a gangly, man-chasing young woman named Letitia Proudfoot, stole the show. Audiences couldn’t wait till she was on stage, and she got the most applause. This inspired Charlotte’s producer, Oliver Morosco, to adapt plays already written to fit the character, which was always named Letty. People began to confuse Charlotte with this character, to the point of calling out to her as “Letty!” on the streets of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and Paris.
The interesting thing about Letty is that Charlotte was not like the character at all. As she told a reporter in 1922, wouldn’t it be awful if she really was like Letty, barging into the parlor and slapping a perfect stranger on the shoulder in hearty greeting? Letty was a barnstorming spinster, climbing over furniture to pursue some reluctant man, always ready with a one-liner (funny or not) and yacking a mile a minute. Charlotte was a quiet, refined, basically shy person off stage. As actor George Gaynes told me, when I interviewed him about working with Charlotte in Cole Porter’s musical Out of This World in 1951, it was hard to believe that such an elegant lady could bring the house down with those mile-high kicks of hers–those kicks that everyone associates with Charlotte, which with her splits, Camel Walk and other vaudeville moves she discovered through accidents early in her career and kept because they made her audiences so happy.