The great Durante

durante


I’ve written before about the ephemerality of fame. How many of you remember Jinx Falkenberg, who was such a big star in her time? And, worse yet, how many of the “celebrities” that she wrote about in her autobiography are still remembered? Almost none. Here’s a great line from her book:  “Tex [Jinx’s husband] asked a whole group over to ‘21’ for dinner – the Jack Strauses, Joanne Sayres and Tony Bliss, Carl Whitmore, the Howard Twins.”

 

 

To this day, I have no idea who any of these people are. I salute them, and their ephemeral celebrity.

 

 

But sometimes a celebrity has more – ahem – memorability.

 

 

I was strolling down the biography aisle in the library the other day when I saw H. Allen Smith’s “Low Man on a Totem Pole.” My heart leapt up. I think I may have a copy of this great classic somewhere in the house, but it’s probably buried under layers and layers of other books. So I checked it out, to give it a twentieth read.

 

 

It has all the wonderful stuff I remember. It has the interview with Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, like so: “I am a wild prize-fighting fan. I go all the time. One night the last fight is on, and I see it is just a couple palookas – that means bums, no goods – so I say to myself why should I sit there and look at these palookas playing waltz with each other and I leave and go to the Clover Club. After that someone comes to my table and says I should not have left the fight because they start throwing pop bottles and almost kill Ruby Keeler.”

 

 

(I don’t care if you know who Ruby Keeler is or not. This line almost killed me with laughter.)

 

 

Smith also interviewed John Grimek and Steve Stanko, early Mr. Americas, who insisted that they liked girls, and that they weren’t musclebound, and could scratch their backs as much as they want.

 

 

Also, best of all: Smith interviewed Jimmy Durante.

 

 

Jimmy was a vaudeville comedian, who became a stage comedian, who became a movie comedian, who became a radio comedian, who became a television comedian. He worked and worked. I remember an interview he did, probably in the 1970s, when he said he intended to work until he died. And so he did.

 

 

He was very funny, and he had a big nose and a comical way of speaking. Here he is:

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Durante is immortal. He is even more immortal than immortal, because he’s in a Cole Porter song:

 

 

You’re a rose,

You’re Inferno’s Dante;

You’re the nose

Of the great Durante.

 

 

Here’s the song.

 

 

 

 

 

Go watch “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” with Monty Woolley and Ann Sheridan. Wait for Durante. He comes into the movie about halfway through. You can’t miss him. He’s wonderful.

 

 

Unlike poor Jinx Falkenberg, the great Durante will live forever.


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Movie review: “The Man Who Came To Dinner”

Man-who-came-to-dinner-bette-davis-1

Of the making of movies there is no end.  I used to think it was possible to see them all, every single one of them.  Of course, that was back in the 1970s, and there were a lot fewer movies back then.  Since then – well, the mind boggles.  I have given up on that particular life goal.

 

 

But there are so many good movies back in the vaults!

 

 

That’s why I treasure TCM.  They trot them out, the good and the bad and the obscure.  They are remarkably judgment-free.  I owe them so much, for seeing gems like “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Fanny,” and “The Heiress.”

 

 

Also, just recently, for the very first time in my life, “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

 

 

It’s a filmization of a successful Kaufman/Hart play which they wrote (very obviously) about their friend Alexander Woolcott, a radio personality who had a huge personality but who was also completely insufferable.  Sheridan Whiteside (the Woolcott character) is touring the Midwest when he gets (mildly) injured and has to spend December holed up with a nouveau-riche Ohio family, and naturally he takes over the whole house and starts interfering in everything.   The cast is rich with talent: Bette Davis as his fed-up secretary, the curvy Ann Sheridan as his bitchy actress friend, Jimmy Durante as Harpo Marx.

 

 

 

But the great revelation here is the brilliant Monty Woolley.

 

 

Woolley was a stage actor who’d done the role on Broadway; when Hollywood took on the project, naturally they wanted someone famous, but once they’d signed enough high-powered talent like Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan, they deigned to allow Master Wooley to keep his leading role.

 

 

He is amazing.  He is evil and dynamic.  He is Santa and Satan at the same time.  His eyes gleam demonically, and he bares his teeth in the most alarming way.  He spends most of the movie in a wheelchair, but you are constantly terrified that he’s going to leap up and beat the hell out of people.  He uses “repulsive” and “gruesome” as pet names (as, reportedly, did Woolcott).  He ends up being the hero of the day, solving everyone’s problems (and one really wonders if Woolcott was as nice as that). 

 

 

One of my favorite lines: his nurse, the terrified Mary Wickes, his nurse, sees him eating candy and tells him it’s not good for him.   His response: “My great-aunt Jennifer ate a box of candy a day for her entire life.  She lived to be one hundred and two, and three days after she died, she looked better than you do now.”

 

 

(Postscript: one of my college friends just wrote me a nice New Year’s note to say that he’d just seen this movie on television.  “And,” he said, “Sheridan Whiteside always reminds me of you.”)

 

 

(I was amazed, and startled, and very very flattered.)


 

 

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