All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
This is going to be a catch all category, and one hard to define. Stars, today, are celebrated for their versatility, how many different characters they can portray. But in the early days of Hollywood the actors, themselves, were, more or less, the characters. Their physical identities were often so strong and visual that they lent themselves to stylization and caricature. And products bearing their likenesses were instantly recognizable and popular. Certain personalities, when they actually appeared on the silver screen, always played themselves. These star’s physical characteristics, whether real, think Laurel and Hardy, or self-created i.e. Charlie Chaplin, were so distinctive that they became iconic.
Moving upstairs, the Charlie Chaplin showcase that was begun downstairs continues up here, where Charlie is joined by other luminaries from that fabled land of dreams that a star struck nation knew as Hollywood. One star, who once shone brightly and has now sank below the horizon of memory, is Eddie Cantor. Not only did he become a doll, admittedly a rare one, in his heyday, he was so popular that an enormous air-filled effigy of him became the lead balloon in the 1934 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Another unlikely subject for a doll is W.C, Fields. He became, not just an ordinary doll, but a ventriloquist dummy. This was an offshoot of the enormous popularity of the Charlie McCarthy show, where Charlie and W,C. bantered in a weekly battle of wits. This doll is amazing! From his hat to his stickpin and his spats, and the original pin back button on his lapel, he is totally complete.
My Charlie McCarthy doll is a prisoner in an inaccessible showcase downstairs. I’ll try to snap a picture of him and include it here. Wow! That is surprising. That photo is so much more pleasing than I ever thought was possible under such adverse conditions. Eunice gave me that doll for Christmas in 1962. I feel like I am seeing him for the first time in 50 years. Well, in many ways, I am.
Meanwhile, he is not to be confused with the other Charlie, who dominates this showcase as he did the one downstairs. There is more Charlie Chaplin stuff here. The toy theater from downstairs, reappears in a bigger more spectacular version, one, in which Charlie is, this time, in color. The larger animated puppet of him, in the middle, is from England, and below that we see a kind of Charlie push toy, in which his feet repeat on a wheel to create the illusion that he is running, or walking, depending on the speed. Along the bottom of the case, is a group of items that relate to Amos and Andy, wooden dolls, tin sparklers, and a delicate pair of German bisque figurines along with their puppy. A sparkler of Harold Lloyd is here as well. There is also a pair of Laurel and Hardy salt and pepper shakers, and a Charlie McCarthy clock.
On the left, above, we discover a delightful doll of Jackie Coogan as “The Kid” the 1921 film that made a star of him. In my exuberant early days as a collector, a friend talked me into entering him in a doll show, where he won a blue ribbon that has, now, faded to purple. And behind this rare doll, is Shirley Temple, a doll that was so complete, in her original box, with all her paraphernalia, that I simply could not resist her.
I remember the day that I first met her, at the Old Madison Square Garden, in 1963. She loudly spoke to me. Did I say spoke? Make that hollered, screamed, and begged, pleading to go home with me! It was really kind of crazy. What was I, a grown man doing purchasing a Shirley Temple doll? Ah, but she was extraordinary, in breathtaking condition, and utterly complete, with every imaginable accessory, and in her original box, with her picture on the label. Her hair was pristine with every well permed curl in place, and she wore her original dress, with every pleat, perfectly pressed. Her hands were affixed to the hem of her dress with blue ribbons in her signature curtsy. This was her point of purchase presentation pose, and the bows had never been untied. There were other clothes as well, her straw hat, a second polka dotted dress, on an official Shirley Temple hanger. She also had a Shirley Temple purse with a Shirley Temple Mirror and a Shirley Temple broach, and her original pin back button. And as if all of that was not enough, there was, also, an autographed photo. What a stunning presentation! How could I resist this miracle, all for $35. She proudly stands, today, the only doll, among a multitude of Comic Characters. Her 80 years of age show just a little, in the form of a few cracks that have appeared on her face, and her glass eyes have slightly clouded over, but she still Radiates! And she still speaks to me as clearly as the day that I first met her.
Shirley Temple was irresistible in the movies too. No matter what role she was cast in, from “Heidi” to a “Poor Little Rich Girl”, she always played herself. As a licensed property she brightened the lives of more young ladies than any child star in history. And many a little girl, growing up in the 1930s, had to endure their hair in curlers, as their star struck mothers dreamed of their own daughters being just like Shirley. As our friend Ken Anger pointed out : There were a hundred thousand child star wannabes in Hollywood, and many of them were talented, but only one could be Shirley Temple.
Also, irresistible to me, was this somewhat haunting bust of Shirley. It dwells in that elusive land where beauty might, or might not, be discovered, hovering halfway between hideous and pretty. This image changes subtly, from exuberant youth to middle age, depending on the lighting, or the time of day. She is tinted, ever so slightly, with highlights of iridescent blue.
Less elusive, is the radiance of this irrepressibly upbeat image of happy go lucky optimistic iconic Shirley, who, throughout the bleak years of the Great Depression, urged an ailing Nation to “Keep Smiling!”
Moving down to the shelf below, we come to a group of dolls that were created by a doll artist, Mary Green. They were made to order, exclusively to please her patron, Daniel Blum. Daniel Blum was an author and popular historian, who, every year, produced a pair of books chronicling the Movies and the Theater for the previous year. His compilation of the History of the Movies was treasured by me, as a kid, solely because the tiny black and white photos that represented each movie were the only place one could see an actual image from a Disney film. Even then, I was keenly aware of the difference between the candy coated illustrations in Little Golden Books and the “real thing”. My copy of his Movie Anthology fell open to the pages with Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, automatically.
Mary Green spent all her life making these dolls. Each was unique and custom made, from scratch. The bodies were fully rounded, fabricated from fabric, and beautifully dressed. Each authentically portrayed a famous star of stage or screen, usually in their most famous role, at Daniel Blum’s request. One element that made these dolls unique was the fact that their faces were completely flat! On these small oval canvases, Mary, as a portrait miniaturist, painted a perfect likeness of the star. The effect was haunting, even stunning, when seen from exactly the right angle, and under perfect lighting. When viewed from any other angle, the illusion fell apart. Perhaps that was also true of the very people they portrayed, when not seen through the camera’s eye or the proscenium of a stage.
On September 18th, I know the day, for it happened to be my birthday. I can’t recall the year, other than to say it was the mid 60’s. We were living in the old loft, then, and we had no money. Eunice and I were walking along the street, a few blocks from where we lived, when we noticed a small sign on the door of a rather austere building, some sort of theater society. It simply said “Auction Today.” We entered, out of curiosity, and there they were, table after table of dolls, some 485 of them, Mary Green’s entire life’s endeavor, property of the late Daniel Blum.
We were told that he had willed the entire collection to the Museum of the City of New York, provided they displayed it. They would accept the dolls, but not that stipulation. So here they were at auction! And the auction was about to begin! Eunice and I were swept away, caught up in the excitement. Obviously, with no money, our choices were limited. What category to go for? Comedians, were one possibility, but we settled on Divas, and threw all caution to the wind. The auction was actually heartbreaking. A roadside tourist trap, along a Florida highway, had put in a standing bid of $5 each for any doll that didn’t go for more. They got the lion’s share! Easily, several hundred dolls, all of those that were obscure to the crowd of bidders who were there. God, there were so many that we wanted! Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were amazing, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi in their most famous roles, and all the great comedians, W.C. Fields was oh so tempting, but we exercised self-control, and in the end we got the ones we wanted, all of those we dared allow ourselves to bid on. Mae West, Theda Berra, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, Sonia Henie, Sarah Bernhardt, and for good measure, Elvis Priestly.
For all of these, I did something I had never done before or since, wrote a check, without any money in the bank. The sum was $185. Fate had brought us to this auction, blindsided us, as we innocently walked by. Now Fate provided our salvation, for in the mail, later that day we discovered a birthday present from my mother, a check that was just enough.
In the wall in Manhattan, I built a showcase lined with mirrored tiles. In the top were holes, positioned above each carefully placed figure. A light was installed, above each hole, with a colored gelatin, over each bulb, so each doll was lit by a different colored light. This blurry photo of Marlene is all I have. The showcase moved to the country with us. It’s still stored under the floor. I never set it up. Thus, all the dolls are stuffed into one insignificant showcase with other stuff. And yesterday, thinking about Charlie McCarthy, I don’t think about him a lot, I realized I haven’t seen his radio for years. Oy! I discovered that some of Mary Green’s dolls are sitting on it!
One radio that you can see, is the Dionne Quintuplets Radio, in the front of the case, along with a potpourri of other things that include Mortimer Snerd and Fanny Brice, and some oddball Charlie McCarthy items, and even a walking eyeball, ridden by a troll, and a crawling dismembered hand, two toys that I made, years ago. These are not prototypes, for a change, they were actually manufactured. Donald Duck says, “What The quack!”
Along the top of the cabinet, below, is a collection of “Hollywood Mugs” by "Barclay". I bet these were popular and plentiful, in the 1940s. They are quite rare, today. The first I ever saw was W.C Fields, from the film "Poppy." The handle was a croquet mallet. This was at the first Brimfield. It was at the end of the day, and I was out of money! I stopped myself from spending the $30 it would take. I never saw that mug again. I later passed up Kathryn Hepburn and Ronald Coleman at Stormville. Finally, I saw nearly all of those below as a group, at a much later Brimfield, and took the leap. I have never had another opportunity to find, or see, the few that I passed up. Hindsight is 20-20. Who knew what would be turn out to be rare, or prove to be commonplace in those early days? Do I need to identify the Characters? From left to right, is Jerry Colona, Barry Fitzgerald, Pat O’Brian, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, his schnozzle is the handle, which reminds me I have a game of that name that is really quite amusing. Then comes Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, with her golden Oscar, and Frank Sinatra, with a bobby-soxer. I really like these a lot, and wish that I had more.
The shelf, below the mugs, is filled with something I find extraordinary. I remember playing with a set of these, when I was five. The man who created this foray into self-absorbed intensity was totally immersed in a world all his own. They are all part of a toy, called “Puppet Parade”, which according to the box, was “The Most Fascinating And Beautiful Toy in Existence.” These were sold in the early 1940s, all together, in a large colorful box. The individual elements were also sold separately in decorative envelopes, at 10 cents each. And I recently discovered a deluxe set, complete with an elaborate cardboard theater to house the individual scenes. The box is the same but a band has been wrapped around the cover to announce that the theater has been included.
Here is the World of Vaudeville, complete in one box. Each unit, of which there are five, is its own self-contained stage. The construction and operation of these puppets is totally unique. They assemble with small paper tabs and then the figures are mounted on a string that extends, behind them, to attach to the back of the stage, and forward to the viewer/operator’s hand. That person is intended to sit in front of the scene, and wiggle the string. Thus, the puppeteer and the “audience” are one in the same! Is it complicated? Is it insane? Take a look at the instruction sheet!
Each "act" comes with a long introduction, wildly irrelevant. The stories that the man who created this thing wrote rise to the level of obsession. Some are several thousand words. Shirley Screech is one of the shorter ones. It is a convoluted tale of how her inappropriate behavior offends everybody, and in the end, gets her father fired. Her parents are beside themselves, trying to figure out what to do with Shirley. Then they read about Puppet Parade and find out she can be obnoxious, there, and get money for it. The final line reads: “We give you the girl that just loves to show off, smart and sassy - Miss Shirley Screech!”
“Miss Shirley Screech!” is obviously a parody of Shirley Temple. The creator of the set writes about all 25 of the characters, voluminously and passionately. But he really takes off on little Shirley Screech. Clearly he dislikes her. Consequently, I am inclined to believe there might have been some reaction. Maybe even legal action. For this figure is very rare. I have encountered any number of complete sets, over the years, some with the original factory wrapper, intact and sealed, and she is not included. Either she was removed at the factory, or, perhaps, never put in. She is still pictured and mentioned on the box, but is rarely found inside. I was only able to find her, along with her friend Honey Belle Lee, in this separate product, an offshoot of the bigger set.
Here is “Schnozzle” the game I mentioned earlier. I didn’t intend to include it here, but it is rather interesting. Clearly, it is based on Jimmy Durante. There is a vague likeness of him on the box, and the words “Ha Cha Cha!” No mention of his name. The interior is even more strange, with the shadow of his profile printed on the insert, and looming over the bizarre object, inside. This is a really sneaky, but somewhat creative way to get away, without paying for a license.
Here is another extraordinary object that I could not resist, this fabulous candy container of Maurice Chevalier. His head comes off to fill his body with candy. His hat is straw, made exactly like a real one, in miniature. This delicate portrait captures his personality, with uncanny sensitivity, from the moisture on his lip to the twinkle in his eye, this image is alive.
The Disney studios also tried their hand at caricaturing the stars, first in "Mickey's Gala Premier", and later in this Technicolor extravaganza, “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.” It was one of the final Silly Symphonies. The Caricatures were exceedingly well done. This poster captures them nicely. It is, in itself, a classic. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1938, but the Award was won by Disney’s “Ferdinand.”
The caricatures were everything. There was no plot, and the dialogue, was all clichés. As a
curiosity, here is the actual movie. It’s available on the Internet, with foreign subtitles. But the sound track
is all original. Time has not been kind to “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.” Seeing these favorite stars,
caricatured must have been more amusing, when they were still alive. There are also some moments that
would be considered politically incorrect, even then, and others that might seem that way, today. On the
other hand, the film is well worth seeing. Visually, it is interesting and it has moments, like the spectacular
final music sequence that are stunning.
And, last of all, is an object that is part Art, and part Archeology. This fantastic fragment of an ancient artifact was a gift from Kenneth Anger. It is the best two thirds of an unknown three sheet poster for “The Hollywood Party.” The missing section contained the “ood” in Hollywood and what appears to be Jimmy Durante, and, who knows, who else? Nobody does, as far as I can tell. This fragment is all that remains.
Walt Disney Gave Mickey Mouse special permission to appear in this movie, produced by rival studio, MGM. He also also created a new Technicolor cartoon, “The Hot Choc-late Soldiers” to be tucked into into this black and white extravaganza, and introduced by Mickey. Here is Mickey’s brief appearance, along with the cartoon. This is one of those strange early cartoons that present a perplexing view of Disney. It’s not the Walt that most of us thought we knew. Under the cover of a catchy tune, the film cheerfully portrays the Horrors of War, its aftermath, as the severely wounded return from battle, and, in the end, the ultimate futility of life, itself, as the blazing sun destroys them all..