vp19 (vp19) wrote in carole_and_co,

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Fill 'er up, with Ethel

Many of Carole Lombard's films had some rather unusual casts, people we normally don't think of as Hollywood actors. It's stretching things a bit, but perhaps the most prime example of this would be her final leading man, Jack Benny, who'd had a little success in films but was still nevertheless perceived as primarily a radio comedian.

He wasn't the only one, however. Carole also worked with boxers (Hall of Famer Maxie Rosenbloom), wrestlers (Nat Pendleton) and fan dancers (Sally Rand, who had been a WAMPAS baby star in the 1920s but never found her niche in films -- thus the fan dancing). It may also surprise some to discover that Lombard made a movie with one of Broadway's all-time legends, because like Benny, this person isn't usually associated with film.

We're talking about Ethel Merman, the brassy belter whose exuberance could be heard in the very last row of the theater. On Broadway, the lady had considerable star power -- her hit musicals ranged from the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy" in 1930 (where she made "I Got Rhythm" a hit) to Stephen Sondheim's "Gypsy" three decades later (where she did likewise for "Everything's Coming Up Roses"). Her final starring role on Broadway was as a replacement in "Hello, Dolly!" in 1970...and indeed, the Jerry Herman score had been written with her in mind before Carol Channing made it her own. Other notable shows included "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Call Me Madam."

Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in January 1908 in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., Merman became a vaudeville performer in the 1920s before becoming a Broadway star. She made some short films at Paramount's Astoria studios in the early 1930s before the company -- feeling the pinch of the Depression -- shut down. Paramount finally brought her out west in early 1934, and her first work there was a supporting role in the Lombard-Bing Crosby vehicle "We're Not Dressing" (whose cast also included George Burns, Gracie Allen and a young Ray Milland!) Here's a photo from the film, showing Lombard and Merman, with comedic character actor Leon Errol in between:

The experience was an unsettling one for Merman, who frankly didn't care much for Lombard's salty language on the set.

She made another film in Hollywood, one better suited to her talent -- "Kid Millions," with Eddie Cantor, at Goldwyn. But later that year, Merman returned to New York, where she starred in one of Cole Porter's triumphs, "Anything Goes." (In 1936, she appeared in the film adaptation.) In 1938, she appeared in an Irving Berlin musical, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

After that, however, film appearances were few and far between. Merman appeared in two more Berlin musicals, "Call Me Madam" in 1953 and "There's No Business Like Show Business" in 1954, but those were the last times she starred in a musical film. When Hollywood used her, it was strictly for comedy, such as in "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" or "Airplane!" (Merman died in February 1984.)

Why was she ignored by Hollywood? Studio executives never thought Merman's boisterous style translated well to the big screen, though she could handle a song with subtlety (she recorded Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" in 1932, with only a piano for accompaniment, and it works beautifully).

As with her good friend Mary Martin, who made some musical films for Paramount in the late 1930s and early 1940s but never was appreciated there, studios believed Broadway stars weren't big box office. The more photogenic Julie Andrews finally proved them wrong in 1965 with the blockbuster "The Sound Of Music" -- which Martin had starred in on Broadway -- but by then, we had already been deprived of seeing Martin on celluloid in "South Pacific," Merman in "Gypsy" and Andrews in "My Fair Lady."

However, the main reason I wrote this entry, aside from instructing many of you about one of musical theater's greatest stars, is to let you know this relatively rare photo above is now being auctioned at eBay (http://cgi.ebay.com/Carole-Lombard-Ethel-Merman-ORIG-1934-film-photo_W0QQitemZ270316087685QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item270316087685&_trksid=p3286.c0.m14&_trkparms=66%3A3%7C65%3A1%7C39%3A2%7C240%3A1318). Bidding begins at $9.99 and will continue through 6:40 p.m. (Eastern) on Wednesday.

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