Monday, August 22, 2011

Star of “Wake Up and Live" was “Better than Winchell”

In honor of the 6th Annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention this September, I am offering a preview of Bob Stepno's article about Wake Up and Live, a 1937 musical-comedy, scheduled for screening at the convention. Enclosed is a preview of Stepno's article (among other articles written by knowledgeable figures) that will appear in this year's program guide.

Star of Wake Up and Live was “Better than Winchell”

by Bob Stepno 

More than a half-century before Howard Stern proclaimed himself “King of all media,” Walter Winchell could have claimed the same title, and the film Wake Up and Live would be one of the jewels in his crown -- his first role as a Hollywood leading man.

The musical comedy hit from 1937 features Winchell and bandleader Ben Bernie, playing themselves, in a plot that takes place during the heyday of network radio and the pre-war nightclub scene. Both were common motion-picture settings during the thirties and forties -- who could forget Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s 1942 comedy, Who Done It?

The plot: Backstage, a would-be crooner paralyzed by the microphone equivalent of stage fright practices singing-along to Bernie’s band -- not knowing that he’s using a live microphone during a broadcast. No one can identify this “Phantom Troubadour,” but listeners love him and fan mail pours in. The search for the mystery voice pits Winchell against Bernie in a battle of wits and quips -- the two having had a long-time fake feud on their respective radio shows in the same manner as Fred Allen and Jack Benny.

Actress Patsy Kelly
The crooner is played by Jack Haley, two years before his tin-woodsman role in The Wizard of Oz (1939). This time, however, it is he, not the Cowardly Lion, looking for some courage. Leading lady Alice Faye (who sings the title song) plays the sweetheart who tries to boost his self-confidence with the kind of self-help psychology promoted in a popular book of the day by Dorothea Brande, from which the musical took its title. 

Wake Up and Live, is, after all, a musical, but with more plot than musicals of the time. Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Revel wrote nine new songs for the show. Patsy Kelly, Ned Sparks, Grace Bradley, Leah Ray, Walter Catlett, the Brewster Twins, the Condos Brothers and Joan Davis round out the singing and dancing cast.

The New York Times dipped into Winchell’s style for the lead on its April 24, 1937, review, written by Frank S. Nugent:
“In you-know-whose words, it’s a blessed event at the Roxy, a bundle from Darryl Zanuck’s West Coast heaven, a first dividend from that clearly eugenic (and thoroughly compatible) blending of Walter Winchell and the talkies. Mr. Winchell never sounded lovelier nor faced a microphone and lens more gracefully. He runs through Wake Up and Live with the assurance of an ex-vaudeville hoofer and the high tension we always have associated with Broadway’s Pepys.”
The “hoofer” part was true. After a brief vaudeville career of his own, Winchell started a backstage gossip newsletter that led to his career in newspapers. That began during the Roaring Twenties at the sensational daily tabloid the Evening Graphic. As his fame grew, he jumped ship to work for the competition, Hearst’s Daily Mirror -- advancing syndication to more than 2,000 newspapers.

Walter Winchell (left) before the microphone.

In print and on the radio, Winchell specialized in short scraps of information and staccato punchlines, separating items with stars and ellipses in print, and with the click of Morse code dots and dashes on the air. His Winchellisms were famous, coined euphemisms that helped him get naughty news items into the paper, or just sparked things up. One such example: When it was unacceptable to write about divorces, Winchell had couples going to Nevada to have their marriages “Reno-vated.”

Perhaps more than anyone, Walter Winchell helped establish the image of the American news reporter as a smirking, fedora-wearing, fast-talking insider, a regular at nightclubs and theaters, a friend of cops and gangsters, showgirls and moguls. And, in Winchell’s case, as a power-broker who could make and break careers with a mention in his column.

As time went on, his columns and broadcasts became more political, first for Roosevelt and against Hitler in World War II, then for Joe McCarthy and against Communism during the Red Scare years of the 1950s. His style didn’t translate well to TV, but had a late revival when he became the narrator for the television program, The Untouchables, sometimes describing gangsters he had known and written about back in Prohibition days. But in Wake Up and Live, the biggest menace is Ben Bernie, and it’s all in fun. 

Audiences knew Winchell well before they walked into the theater -- from his column and his radio broadcasts. By 1937, Winchell had been on the radio for a half-dozen years. His newspaper column was read nationwide, and his gossip-monger style had been lampooned on screen in films like Lee Tracy’s Blessed Event (1932). According to Neil Gabler’s biography, Winchell wrote Variety’s editor about the Wake Up and Live script, saying, “I am playing a semi-menace with the usual windup. ‘Why Walter, we didn’t know you were using it for that reason!’”

When the cameras started rolling, he was nervous, but supported by Zanuck and director Sidney Lanfield. According to Gabler, Lanfield shot Winchell’s first takes with an empty camera “until the actor calmed down,” and Bernie joked about the rattling of Winchell’s knees drowning out the dialogue. However, Variety called the result “sheer entertainment, fast stepping, sparkling, without a foot of waste material or a dull moment.”

The Lewiston Evening Journal tempered its praise: “Wake Up and Live cannot be classed among outstanding films -- but it’s diverting -- to those who like light comedy, torch-singers, crooners, jazz orchestras and vivacious romance.”

Ezra Goodman, writing the next October in The New York Times under the headline, “How to Act Like a Writer,” observed that a half-dozen newspaper columnists had appeared as themselves in recent films, including Ed Sullivan, Louella O. Parsons and less-remembered newspapermen Sidney Skolsky and Jimmie Fidler.  “... but somehow, it doesn’t quite come off,” Goodman wrote. “Fidler, for instance, never succeeds in his acting in being as good as the real Fidler, or Parsons as the real Parsons, or Skolsky as the McCoy Skolsky. Walter Winchell, however, is an exception. He is better than Winchell.”

Despite admitting to a Ph.D., Bob Stepno keeps an old fedora with a press card in the band hanging by his desk as a reminder of his days at The Hartford Courant and The Raleigh News & Observer. Today his desk is at Radford University in Radford, Va., where he teaches journalism and media studies, and is researching the portrayal of journalists in old-time radio dramas. The result so far includes a blog and podcast,  “Newspaper Heroes on the Air,” for short.