Monday, September 16, 2013

Showbiz Icons: What They Did To Grab and Hold the Audience ...

Thanks to the vaults of Netflix, I'm discovering many treasures from the past

I never saw Milton Berle in his day -- unless it was he whose figure flickered across a snowy screen on a strange box in the window of the used car lot office just around the corner from where I lived in Santa Rosa.  On that enchanted evening long ago, they say the first TV set was put on display in the town. My friends and I, out playing games in the street like kids used to play, stopped in curiosity, not knowing what to make of the thing.  Soon, it would start showing up in homes around town. Soon, Lucy and Groucho, Liberace and some funny puppets would become weekly household guests.  We did not buy our own TV until 1956.  By then, Berle's career was on the wane.

What a terrific showman he was!  Funny, quick on his feet, able to ad lib his way around technical glitches in a manner that others, even Johnny Carson, would follow.  Restlessly real, Milton Berle proved the perfect force to carve out a solid undeniable presence on those early-era snowy TV screens.     

Watching some old Liberace shows, I recall our going to some friends house down the street, where we took in I Love Lucy, You Bet Your Life, and the floridly amusing pianist-singer.  His shows were, looking at them now, impeccably crafted and performed. And before live cameras!   Liberace had a way of placing his face directly into your eyes  Of pulling you into the set.

Notice the superb stage pictures.  These early day TV entertainers brought the best of Old Vaudeville, along with a new kind of intimate showmanship, into American homes.

"I'll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places ..."

How sadly melodramatic that Liberace should end up on the Neon Strip, gilding his flamboyant showmanship with ever more outrageous modes of costume overkill and Let's-Love-Me! behavior.

Television also gave new life to Old Icons, such as the great Fred Astaire, seen here dancing up a storm, in 1971 and the age of 72, for hit and miss talk show host Dick Cavett.  Some of the Cavett interviews are classic.  And some, like the time he allowed a rambling and very unfunny Groucho Marx far too much camera time, were a bust and a bore.   

Of Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson once complained, the trouble is, "Cavett interviews himself."  How well I recall being irritated by that quality, and yet, when Cavett talked to Astaire, and to Bette Davis, he was absolutely superb in holding back, asking simple questions and letting these giants reveal themselves in a totally unrushed manner.  Perhaps, those long gratuitous Cavett-on-Cavett asides have been edited out. 

And here is the Goddess herself. Bette Davis.  I have seen her tear up scenery, yes. But I have also marveled at her best work, such as her aging in Mrs. Skiffington.  The night Bette Davis visited Dick Cavett, she came across with a rare compelling honesty, and I don't think it was a performance.

For example, Davis revealed both great affection for the savvy of the old Hollywood moguls, even though she granted  that they, including her long time boss Jack Warner,  had no loyalty whatsoever for the actors they employed -- including herself, at the end of her Warner days.. 

Was it for fame? For the money? Davis said she savored the art of acting itself, going so far as to advocate a degree of visible effort.  Naturalistic acting? To a point, she conceded.  But a touch of theatricality is something the audience expects.   Money never came first for her, she claimed.  Nor the great opening nights and the fan letters.  She valued most of all the passion to act.  "You wanted to get on that stage and work."  I believed her.  In Death on the Nile (1978), she took on a relatively small role, hardly a supporting role, and yet excelled in the part with a remarkable I-am-not-Bette-Davis-the-star-of-this-movie restraint.  Among her best work.

The life of an artist, she said, is usually a lonely one.

Ego.  Ambition.  Passion.  Rivalry.  Revenge.  Loneliness.   Oh, but how they entertained us!


Douglas McPherson said...

They don't make charisma like they did in black and white! Just watched a DVD clip of Danny Kaye rehearsing at the London Palladium. That anarchic smile and gleam in his eye. Even in rehearsal he was mesmerising.

Showbiz David said...

The word "charisma," yes. When I watched Milton Berle dance, I was astonished at how light footed and dexterous he was on his feet, in a most idiosyncratic fashion. What a dynamic assault to the music he made, and I had thought he was supposed to be just a comedian!