Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Colonel Maggie

I've always had a soft spot for Martha Raye, one of the great film clowns of the 30s and 40s, and an early TV star of the 50s. She is barely a footnote today, but her career actually spanned sixty years or more, and included vaudeville, Broadway, radio, recordings, and live appearances, as well as film and television. She hit the stage at the tender age of 3, as the daughter of vaudevillians "Reed and Hooper" (she was born in Butte, Montana, while her folks toured there. Her mother was back onstage two days after giving birth). She was clearly the star of the family, and her parents soon teamed her with her brother and renamed the act "Margie and Bud."

The family landed in New York, and Martha attended an elementary school geared to children who were performers. She left school in the fifth grade, and remained functionally illiterate for the rest of her life; she was forced to have scripts read aloud to her, a humiliation which added to her already low self-esteem. She was not considered a particularly attractive woman (as opposed to that other female clown of the period, Betty Hutton, who starred in the Dance Party a while ago). Raye possessed an oversized mouth which she accentuated with her comedic mugging, even nicknaming herself "The Big Mouth". By the late 1930s, she had parlayed that mugging into a contract with Paramount, beginning a period of 20 years or so in which she appeared with every comic star in Hollywood. Her film co-stars included everyone from the low-budget Abbot and Costello to bigger names such as Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, and Bob Hope. Some believe her work in Charlie Chaplin's cult classic Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 to be her finest film performance:

Raye became one of the first stars of television, as one of the rotating hosts of the 50s variety show All-Star Review. The program eventually morphed into The Martha Raye Show, and Raye herself was proclaimed the "funniest femme in television" by Variety, quite a feat considering Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Gracie Allen all had shows running at the time. But Martha is hardly remembered alongside that illustrious group, as her show was live and did not generate reruns which could be viewed by later generations.

After her show folded, Martha maintained a presence on TV for many more decades, guesting on countless programs, and becoming the spokesperson for Polident denture cleaner. She returned to the stage often, and was one of Carol Channing's replacements in the original production of Hello, Dolly!. On video, she can be seen hamming it up in the Canadian television version of Pippin, and in the low-budget kids' film Pufnstuf, a gig which led to her starring role in a Saturday morning program called The Bugaloos.

Raye's personal life was a tumultuous one. She was separated from her fifth husband (she had seven total) when her TV show was cancelled in 1956, and she attempted suicide. She abused alcohol throughout her life, and her outrageous antics masked her self-consciousness about her unusual features (she would occasionally flip out her upper dental plate, just for a laugh). She made tabloid headlines when, at the age of 75, she married a man of questionable orientation who was 33 years her junior; he inherited the entirety of her estate, with Raye's only daughter, from whom she was estranged, being excluded.

With all her problems, Martha Raye had a charitable soul, and her greatest legacy is probably her lifelong work with the USO. She travelled all over the world (despite a fear of flying) to entertain troops during WWII, and in the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts (her long history with the USO led her to believe the Bette Midler film For the Boys was based on her life. She attempted to sue, but the case was dismissed). She was the first civilian to be allowed to wear the Green Beret, and she was nicknamed "Colonel Maggie" by the troops she entertained. In 1993, suffering from Alzheimer's and having had both legs recently amputated, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton; a year later, she died, and was buried with full military honors at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Martha Raye's birthday was last week, and in her honor, please enjoy this week's Dance Party, a number from Hellzapoppin, one of the most incoherent musicals ever to emerge from the studio system (if you're interested, I used another clip from this chaotic film to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Musclehead Manning, the inventor of the Lindy Hop). But this clip is a good illustration of Raye's aggressive film persona. Don't ask me to explain the plot of this film, or the significance given to the pool, just enjoy Colonel Maggie's quirky performance: