Sunday, March 06, 2016

More Musical Comediennes: Mabel Todd & Cass Daley

Al Pearce & His Gang, including Mabel Todd and Morey Amsterdam

Writing about Betty Hutton in the last post got this blogger thinking about some of the other musical comediennes of the era, albeit those a lot less well known and in the public eye for a shorter period of fame.

While the great musical comedy star of stage and screen Lyda Roberti (1909-1938) was covered in this very space in our October 3, 2011 post (and, by all means, check out Lyda in Million Dollar Legs, The Kid From Spain and College Rhythm, co-starring radio star Joe Penner), more musical comedy gals came to mind.

Rummaging deep in the 16mm archives preparing for a KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival show, this blogger stumbled across a couple of Soundies, Hawaiian War Chant and Sadie Hawkins Day (both from 1942), starring comic novelty singer - and at one point the wife of Morey Amsterdam - Mabel Todd.

This comedy fan found something very oddly endearing about the wacky comedienne/vocalist and wanted to find out more about the second Madcap Mabel.

For an excellent example of her musical comedy performance style, at times so over-the-top as to make Martha Raye and Betty Hutton look phlegmatic by comparison, there is the appearance by Mabel as "Baby Beth Barton," singing "Says Who? Says You, Says I" in the 1941 Warner Brothers film Blues In The Night, directed by Anatole Litvak.

The cartoony Mabel enters the scene with her signature cackling laugh, which makes one wonder if she was the inspiration for a similarly maniacal chortle heard from the Walter Lantz cartoon studio's equally batty Woody Woodpecker. Then she sings a ditty animation mavens know from the Chuck Jones WB cartoon The Bird Came C.O.D quite well. Important side note: the little guy who looks quite menacing throughout this scene (and accompanied by a stern-looking Jack Carson) is future director Elia Kazan.

Mabel transitioned from vaudeville, in which she performed in a duo with her sister, to singing goofy novelty numbers and swing era standards on radio as a regular on such programs as shows Al Pearce & His Gang and The Komedy Kingdom. Here she is, singing a fine rendition of "I'm Gonna Clap My Hands", backed by Gordon "Felix" Mills and His Orchestra. "The Komedy Kingdom" was recorded at a station this writer listened to frequently in his 1960's childhood, KFRC in San Francisco.

Arguably Mabel's claim to fame (for those not up on her work in radio) is in one of her rare non-wacky roles, as the singing voice for a certain Warner Bros. cartoon - second among the Merrie Melodies to I Love To Singa in the 1930's animated musical genre - Katnip Kollege.

While this 1939 Merrie Melodie is clearly a throwback, more along the lines of the 1934-1935 style musical cartoon than the brash humor pioneered later in the decade by Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett (and the WB story department), the following song, "As Easy As Fallin' Off A Log," is very nicely performed by Mabel and singing trumpet player Johnny "Scat" Davis.

Not surprisingly, due to her comic singing on radio, when she transitioned into movies, Mabel was typecast as "wacky blonde comic relief" in Warner Bros. musicals. In Varsity Show and Hollywood Hotel, she met her zany match as something of a team with famed vaudevillian, chief Stooge, raconteur and larger-than-life character Ted Healy.

The funniest Mabel Todd bits this writer has seen are from Hollywood Hotel. The two play off each other quite well and it is a shame that they did not work together any more.

Further illustrating that chemistry between the blustery Healy and the daffy Todd: both a short clip from and the complete version of the "Let That Be A Lesson To You" number in the latter, featuring quite a cast of comedians, from Hollywood Hotel.

Healy had hired Morey Amsterdam as a gagman and it would not be a stretch to imagine that Ted's untimely death (covered accurately and in detail in Bill Cassara's superb biography, Nobody's Stooge) in 1937 had a negative effect on Mabel's showbiz prospects and career.

Both Healy and Todd were slated to appear in Gold Diggers In Paris, but Healy passed on December 21, 1937. In the last entry in the Gold Diggers series, released on June 11, 1938, Mabel is among the co-stars, along with WB stock company character actors Hugh "Woowoo" Herbert and perennial "mug" Allen Jenkins.

In addition, she appeared in westerns, provided comic relief with wisecracking Patsy Kelly to the Gary Cooper-Merle Oberon vehicle The Cowboy & The Lady and played a character part in Universal's Mystery of the White Room (1939).

She played her Ditzy Dora specialty like a Stradivarius in PRC's macabre mystery-comedy and sendup of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge "old dark house" genre The Ghost and the Guest. Morey Amsterdam wrote the one-liner filled screenplay from a story by the legendary cartoonist Milt Gross.

Mabel's movie career slowed down in the 1940's, although she was busy co-starring in The Laugh & Swing Club on radio, performing in USO shows and early television broadcasts. Mabel and Morey divorced. After returning to radio for a few years, Mabel Todd would retire from show business. Outside of a disastrous second marriage, very little is known about the last 30 years of her life. She passed away in 1977.

And then there's the gangly, quadruple-jointed comedienne even more extreme than Mabel Todd - Miss Cass Daley, a.k.a Queen Of Musical Mayhem.

Cass was an indescribable one-of-a-kind performer and very likely seen to far better advantage in her nightclub act than in the more sedate and less improvisational milieus of Hollywood movies and TV.

Her go-for-broke style recalls few other comediennes besides Martha Raye - even Lucy seems genteel by comparison - but does remind this writer of a certain rubber-faced comic from five decades later, Jim Carrey. The following number from The Fleet's In, the Paramount Pictures vehicle for Dorothy Lamour and Bill Holden which also featured the silver screen debut of Betty Hutton, may be the closest thing to a record of Cass' raucously hilarious musical comedy act.

In the dual role of herself and her double, the inimitable Sadie Silverfish, she made a rather remarkable contribution to the zany Universal Pictures comedy Crazy House

This comedian and comedienne-packed extravaganza was the not-exactly-sedate followup to Hellzapoppin', the 1941 feature loosely adapted from the anarchic Broadway revue of the same name. Both films starred a comedy team every bit as wacky as Cass Daley, Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson.

The showbiz urban legend goes that Cass transitioned from singing to slapstick after getting upstaged by the wacky antics of Red Skelton. Well, she showed Red. . .

Cass also, unlike her 1940's musical comedy contemporaries, serves up a slight hint of salaciousness which is quite funny.

While there is an aspect of Cass Daley's humor that, all these decades later, can come across as a tad TOO self-deprecating, this was not just part and parcel of her act, but accpmpanies a "I'm a gal, dammit, and anything you can do I can do better" attitude, as well as a deliberate effort to out-Skelton Skelton in the physical comedy department.

Bear in mind, it was a few years later that I Love Lucy debuted, so Lucille Ball had not won that contest just yet. The incomparable Imogene Coca had neither debuted in The Admiral Broadway Revue nor made comedy history in Your Show Of Shows. The debut of The Martha Raye Show, written and directed by Nat Hiken (You'll Never Get Rich a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko, Car 54 Where Are You), was still quite a few years down the road.

She did bring her considerable musical comedy talents to radio, and at one point in the early 1950's had her own show.

Cass was also a semi-regular on Bob Hope's TV show.

She also periodically appeared in very funny television ads.

Cass Daley made less TV appearances once the variety show genre began fading away, but had many fans. One was a vocalist in the enormously popular 1960's Los Angeles folk-pop group and hit making machine The Mamas & The Papas: Cass Elliott a.k.a. Mama Cass. Alas, both of those troupers named Cass left too soon, but created great memories for those who got to hear them rock the house with their music and comedy.

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