Charlotte Greenwood, in her day one of the foremost comediennes of stage and film, is finally the subject of a biography. Grant Hayter-Menzies has written “Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film,” utilizing a number of personal notes and memorabilia the actress left to their mutual friend, playwright William Luce.
Published by McFarland & Company in May 2007, this new biography gives us a chance to re-examine the career of a remarkable talent. Mr. Hayter-Menzies kindly answered a few questions for me on his book, for which he interviewed Shirley Jones, who starred with Miss Greenwood in “Oklahoma.” The challenge of course is when the subject was born in 1890, there are few colleagues left to interview, even though Greenwood’s career spanned nearly fifty years. Much of the source material comes from Miss Greenwood herself.
Both Miss Jones and the author comment on Charlotte Greenwood’s honesty in her performances. Mr. Hayter-Menzies remarks, “Even in her crazier roles - with the high kicks, the splits, the Camel Walk (her dance routine involving a flat-handed crawl off the stage) - you feel like a real person is in front of you.”
“I think this realness, honesty, and empathy, was based on the fact that Charlotte regarded herself immensely privileged to be an actor. As Shirley Jones notes elsewhere, Charlotte took all the pleasure in her work, after 50 years on stage and screen, that a much younger person, full of youthful ideals, would have shown. She had somuch to give, and she wanted everyone giving her their attention to have as much pleasure and inspiration as she got from performing. She really loved people and had no hesitation about showing it.”
Theatre critics lauded Greenwood as a special talent, and in one of her earliest film reviews for “So Long Letty” (1929), which featured a character she was to portray in several plays and films, the New York Times commented that she was “largely responsible” for the lively picture, doing “exceedingly well in her part of the light-headed wife.”
According to Hayter-Menzies, “She was in Los Angeles touring ‘So Long Letty,’ the first of her several spin-off musical comedies based on a character, Letitia Proudfoot, that she had played in a show called ‘The Pretty Mrs. Smith,’ and was tapped by Jesse Lasky to star in a film called ‘Jane.’ She confided to a reporter during this time that playing ‘Letty’ in the theatre and shooting ‘Jane’ on the Famous Players set nearly exhaustedher. Perhaps this contributed to her early lack of appreciation for movie-making. But the most important factor was the lack of a live audience and little control over what she could do with the characters she played. And there was a certain snobbery among theatre people from New York in that day that movies - what Charlotte called ‘the flicks’ - were not as good as theatre and a passing fad. It is significant that the first serious dramatic parts Charlotte played and was critically acclaimed for came about in the live theatre, not in films. She always preferred that one-on-one experience with a live audienceto the static strictures of movie making. Yet that wonderful directness from years of live theatre served her very well on film.”
By the early 1940s, though her reputation for comedy was still respected, she was invariably referred to, perhaps even dismissed in articles as merely “cutting middle-age capers” (NY Times, October 18, 1940 on “Down Argentine Way”) and appearing “with legs like stilts.” (NY Times, December 23, 1943 on “The Gang’s All Here”). Still, there was more to Charlotte Greenwood than an almost gymnastic dancing ability and a deft way with a comic line.
The author describes what he feels are a couple of her finest roles: “In my book I make it clear that in terms of how much of the total Charlotte Greenwood went into the characterization, how well directed she was and how thoroughly explored her talents were, the role of Aunt Eller in ‘Oklahoma!’ is Charlotte's best. And, too, there's her ‘trial run’ for Eller, the role of Aunt Penny in the 1944 drama, ‘Home in Indiana,’ which contains Charlotte's first filmed dramatic scene - and a knockout of a first scene it is, too. But in terms of comedy, it doesn't get much better than her role as the ex-cabaret dancer turned investor's wife, Mrs. Peyton Potter, in Busby Berkeley's wild wartime musical, ‘The Gang's All Here.’ She's elegant, she's a klutz, she's a wisecracker and she's justbeautiful to look at and to hear. Her jitterbug sequence, in a long gown and with a man young enough to be her son, is a classic.” (See the link below to watch this classic scene on YouTube.)
Perhaps most poignant about Miss Greenwood’s career is that she regarded it as somewhat accidental.
“I was astonished, first off, that she never intended to become a comedian.” Mr. Hayter-Menzies responds, “From her earliest girlhood she wanted desperately to be a seriousdramatic actor, and that was an ideal that she kept close to heart her entire career - it wasalso one that was reinforced when great drama critics in New York and London acclaimed her in roles that used this largely untapped talent. I was also amazed that her other ideal had been to sing opera - in fact, she studied voice very seriously and I have her music, showing how many arias and art songs (Brahms was a favorite) she worked on. In the 1930's she was still suggesting to the press that she might perform a recital of Brahms songs. She was vocally so unsuited to this material that the idea of her performing Brahms songs or opera arias publicly is rather harrowing. On the other hand, you have to love and applaud the woman's bravery, her gallantry.”
A woman 5’10” tall was considered to be an Amazon in those days, and her ability to use her height and flexibility became a large part of her stage and screen persona. Mr. Hayter-Menzies notes that, “Accident played such a part in making her the beloved comedy figure she was. Charlotte realized her height and leanness were an effective gimmick by accident, and through a great deal of pain. She and her partner EuniceBurnham were performing their act, ‘Two Girls and a Piano,’ in a Wichita theatre in the mid-1900's. Both were elegantly gowned, and while Eunice accompanied at the upright Charlotte sang ballads. One night, she let herself emote with her hands and arms, and the house was in stitches - the more she tried to over correct, the more they liked it. Charlotte was devastated, as she had always been laughed at, since childhood, forher physique. But Eunice convinced her to go with the flow, and the act became a comedy routine that broke box office records and made the pair famous on the vaudeville circuit.”
Quoting Miss Greenwood’s notes for the memoir she was never to write, “In that decision, I had learned the most valuable lesson of my career - that of subjugating self. I was ready for a career as a clown."
“She loved, above all, making people happy,” the author notes, “even if she had to learn to make herself happy in the process.”Another incongruous element in Miss Greenwood’s career is that she often played a man-chasing spinster, yet in real life was married twice. Her second marriage to songwriter Martin Broones was a long and very happy marriage.
“Charlotte was no more gangly and skinny than Julia Roberts or Darryl Hanna, but inthe tastes of the time she was not a girl whom anybody thought any man would want to marry,” Mr. Hayter-Menzies explains, “Hence the Letitia or Letty character and her many iterations, who was always chasing after a man, physically subduing him (as she does with Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr and Buster Keaton in her early 1930's comedies), or outwitting men one way or another in her theatre roles (Abby in ‘The Late Christopher Bean"’ being a good example). She knew she was stereotyped, especially in Hollywood, and she went with it, because it was what gave people pleasure. That she was in factan elegant woman, versed in classical music and opera, a collector of Chinese art and thepaintings of Sir Jacob Epstein, was the reality that only her friends ever saw.”
What the author hopes the reader will take away from this biography of Charlotte Greenwood is, “That behind every stereotype there is a real person - that the clown we laugh at is a human being, with loves, hates, fears and all the rest that goes with being mortal. And the message that Charlotte ends her memoirs with: go with your inspiration. It will lead you to just where you want to be.”
The book can be ordered through Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, or through thepublisher, McFarland & Company. The publisher's listing for the book is:http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-2995-0
Grant Hayter-Menzies will be reading from his book at The Drama Bookshop in New York City at 6 p.m., September 11, 2007. This link below is to The Drama Bookshop event: http://www.dramabookshop.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp?s=storeevents&eventId=345212
This is Mr. Hayter-Menzies' website with photos and more info on Charlotte Greenwood: http://solongletty.tripod.com/.
Thanks very much to Grant Hayter-Menzies for this interview. I think perhaps we’ll give Charlotte Greenwood the last word. Here's a YouTube clip of Charlotte doing that jitterbug scene from “The Gang’s All Here” (1943). Keep in mind, she was about 53 years old when she did this: