Usually I regale you with harrowing stories about people who die early, grisly deaths, but today we are going to put on our happy faces and talk about Charlotte Greenwood. You probably know her from the film version of Oklahoma! or the wonderful 1940s Fox musicals she made. You know, the gawky, high-kicking comic dowager. But she had such a long, wonderful career, stretching from a 1905 Broadway musical to a 1961 sitcom pilot. And she was never out of work for more than five minutes—not bad for a gangly, homely Philadelphia girl.
Born in 1890, Charlotte had the good luck of her mother running a Times Square hotel around the turn of the century. She got chorus jobs in a handful of shows, and played vaudeville with Eunice Burnham (their wonderful Variety ads boasts, “Oh, we’re so perfect and flawless!”). Charlotte gained fame in The Passing Show of 1912, and then So, Long Letty (1916-17), the first of many Letty musicals she did through the 1930s. Her stage persona was set: the tall, awkward, happy-go-lucky gal who alternately charms and scares the pickles out of men (if you have ever seen Miranda Hart’s wonderful eponymous Britcom, well, there you have it).
She spent the 1920s touring the world in vaudeville and doing a few unsuccessful silent films; also briefly married Blanche Ring’s brother Cyril, which ended when Charlotte (dramatically, ones hopes, shouting “J’accuse!”) found him in a hotel with “a woman in scanty attire” in 1920. In 1924 she married composer Martin Broones—that one lasted for life.
A photo of Charlotte Greenwood has been listed on EBay with bids starting at $4.99.
Then came talkies, and damned if the movies knew what to do with her, though there were some very bright spots in the late 1920s and early ’30s: most notably So Long, Letty and Palmy Days, an Eddie Cantor musical that has the best opening number ever, Charlotte singing “Bend Down, Sister” to a gymnasium full of chorines, including a practically fetal Betty Grable. But most of her early talkies were pretty terrible, and she wisely returned to the stage until “life began at 50” and 20th Century-Fox rediscovered her in 1940.
She made 15 films through the 1940s, and many of them were gems: she and Jack Oakie were Shirley Temple’s embarrassing vulgar parents in Young People; she supported a now-grown Betty Grable in the cotton-candy musicals Down Argentine Way, Springtime in the Rockies and Moon Over Miami, with blissfully hammy help from Carmen Miranda, Edward Everett Horton, Leonid Kinskey, Jack Haley and others. She and Carmen Miranda all but stole The Gang’s All Here. Her last great hurrah on film was as Aunt Eller in the 1955 Oklahoma!—the part had actually been written for her, but she was contractually unable to do the Broadway version.
Her loopy, acrobatic dancing style was now a set feature of her act, and audiences felt cheated if it was left out (“If I were playing in an Ibsen tragedy,” she said, “the audience would probably expect me to put one foot on the mantelpiece.”). Surrounded by Hollywood lovelies, Charlotte had enviable self-esteem. “I always tell my tall girlfriends to look up and just act as if the rest of the world had some growing up to do to catch up to us,” she said in 1940. “The kind of wrapping you come in has nothing to do with it. As quickly as you realize that, contentment and peace come—from the heart. Happiness is within you.” How can you not love her? Charlotte Greenwood retired in the early 1960s (her last Broadway show was Out of This World, 1950-51). She was widowed in 1971, and died at 87 in early 1978.
Rather than her oft-seen ’40s work, I leave you with two delights from Charlotte’s earlier career. The opening of Palmy Days (I like to believe that all bakeries in 1931 were exactly like that; and yes, that’s Betty Grable taking the “pansy” order and leading the chorus line):
and Charlotte belting a terrific ditty in So Long, Letty (the great Claude Gillingwater is Grumpy Grandpa, and the hot flappers are Marion Byron and Helen Foster):