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ray bolger

22 may 2019

Before reading Holly Van Leuven's biography, I made a quick mental catalogue of things I knew about Ray Bolger – "more than a scarecrow," that is, as Van Leuven's subtitle suggests. Ray Bolger is an immediately recognizable icon of American cinema, but that's entirely for The Wizard of Oz.

What else did I know going in … I knew that Bolger was a vaudeville veteran, famous as an "eccentric" dancer. I had seen him dance in one other film, The Harvey Girls. I have a recording of Bolger singing "Once in Love with Amy" from Frank Loesser's Broadway hit Where's Charley? – not a cast recording, but a version done with Sy Oliver's band and chorus – and I knew that "Amy" was Bolger's signature song, not "If I Only Had a Brain." I also connected Bolger with John Osborne's play The Entertainer. I thought he'd played Archie Rice on Broadway, but I was wrong: Bolger played Billy Rice, father to Jack Lemmon's Archie, in a 1970s TV-movie adaptation of The Entertainer. And that inaccurate summary was about all I knew.

My hazy information on Ray Bolger is of course a small example of how thoroughly motion pictures dominate cultural memory – and to a lesser extent, how the vagaries of the availability of old films filter that memory even further. To this day, performers who are major stars on stage are known to the public almost exclusively through their film careers, no matter how minor or unrepresentative. A few years ago in an internet discussion, I mentioned James Earl Jones as an American actor who would have been knighted if we knighted actors. I was met with incredulity: who would knight somebody for being in a couple of baseball movies and voicing Darth Vader? Jones' stage work, like Bolger's, was for a time central to the Broadway experience. The charm and pity of live theatre is that it is ephemeral and irrecoverable.

And aside from The Wizard of Oz, films didn't do Ray Bolger much justice. Van Leuven characterizes much of Bolger's Hollywood experience as a well-paid waste of time, years spent hanging around an MGM that had little idea what to do with him and kept him away from Broadway and national tours. As a result, it can be hard to piece together, 70-80 years later, why Ray Bolger was such a big deal. Tap-dancing sequences from The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Harvey Girls (1946) show an astonishingly limber Bolger doing technically intricate routines as if he'd just wandered onstage slightly tipsy and had no idea what he was getting into. I don't get the sense from Van Leuven's biography that Bolger made fun of drunkenness (still less that he was an alcoholic: Bolger was no teetotaler, but he was a true workaholic with exceptional performance discipline and stamina). Bolger's trademark was an improvisational insouciance. And for that reason too, films were not congenial to his working style. "Everything was mechanical," Bolger said of film work. "If you did a tap dance, you'd have to redo the taps afterwards. I found there was a lack of spontaneity in it" (85-86).

Van Leuven is the first scholar to have access to all the Bolger archives, and she makes the most of it. She traces Bolger's life and career from the streets of Boston to the top of the heap in Manhattan and L.A. Bolger, a working-class kid, learned to dance by imitating street and club dancers in Boston – often, in days long before easy access to video, imitating dancers who were imitating more famous dancers that Bolger himself never saw. Irish and African-American traditions melded in a powerful, flexible tradition with a lot of room for individual style and constant improvisation.

Bolger, born in 1904, climbed the ladder of vaudeville in the '20s, and while he must have struggled and had his doubts, by Van Leuven's account he reached the higher echelons pretty readily. The key event of Bolger's career happened in 1928, when vaudeville was already on the way downhill as talking pictures came into play. Bolger signed with a William Morris agent named Abe Lastfogel. Both men were in their mid-20s; Lastfogel was Bolger's first agent and Bolger was Lastfogel's first client. Both would become major figures in their respective ends of show business, in a true synergy of talents.

The 1930s saw the precipitous decline of vaudeville. Bolger, now married to Gwen Rickard (his lifelong promoter) and unable to support them both by hoofing on the old circuits, had to move opportunistically between Hollywood contracts and shorter-term projects on Broadway. A keynote of Van Leuven's book is Bolger's adaptability. As noted, he did not take easily to the film medium, but he wasn't picky, and when films meant more money, Bolger would head to L.A. For a big stage opportunity, he went back to New York; he and Gwen ultimately maintained homes in both cities.

The middle chapters of Van Leuven's book are best read with windows open at both IMDb and IBDB. Between 1929 and 1943, Bolger appeared in four Broadway revues and three "book musicals" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; he also appeared in half-a-dozen films. As memorable as his Scarecrow would become, Bolger's most important work of the era was in Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet for On Your Toes (1936). George Balanchine choreographed the number to take special advantage of Bolger's abilities. "His muscles have like the sense of humor," Balanchine would say (80), though at times Van Leuven suggests that Balanchine wasn't always entirely complimentary in such remarks. Bolger could always do amazing things, but one senses that he did not prefer doing the same amazing things night after night. And of course, none of the things he did with the "Slaughter" ballet survive on film.

Ray Bolger was not really a singer, so it is interesting that Rodgers and Hart chose him to introduce some songs that figure prominently in their legacy. Bolger and Doris Carson introduced "There's a Small Hotel" in On Your Toes; later, Bolger and Benay Venuta first sang "Ev'rything I've Got" in By Jupiter. But Broadway composers always preferred people who could sell a song to those with sheer vocal equipment. Rodgers and Hart also worked with Gene Kelly in Pal Joey; and nobody introduced more great song standards than Fred Astaire.

By Jupiter was doing Olympian box office in mid-1943 when Bolger quit, dismaying his fellow cast members and provoking Rodgers to write some acid verse about the dancer's work ethic. But the disappearance was necessary so that Bolger could do a long USO tour of the South Pacific, which Van Leuven documents in fascinating detail. Back in the US, he appeared in The Harvey Girls and then, with Rickard guiding the process, put together Where's Charley? Based on the even-then-tired cross-dressing farce Charley's Aunt, the project teamed Bolger with the rising composer Frank Loesser and the longsuffering Balanchine. It was at last The Big Thing. Bolger took "Once in Love with Amy," a throwaway novelty song, and turned it into must-see theater. Whether or not the shtick began with a little kid in the front row feeding him his lyrics, Bolger made the number into an audience-participation classic. Like so much of his stage work, it is irreproducible, but it was a literal show-stopper of variable length and content. Bolger won a Tony Award for Charley, and rode the vehicle to the height of his career. Where's Charley? was subsequently filmed and was a modest success, but as luck would have it remains out of print and largely unseeable.

The descent afterwards was pretty steep, though part of that was simply the age that overtakes all dancers. Bolger rapidly took to television, doing a weekly dance-centered show for several years: though again the medium didn't really suit him, it was lucrative and less exhausting than Broadway. But he never became a big TV star, and the TV years feature the only possible bad mark on Bolger's character, when his TV co-workers had to sign McCarthy-era loyalty oaths (184). Of Bolger's conservative politics there is no doubt. One notes, however, that the loyalty-oath story has just a single, oral source – Bolger's co-star Sylvia Lewis – and even Lewis was uncertain of Bolger's role in requiring the signatures.

Of Bolger's last two Broadway shows, All-American and Come Summer in the 1960s, the less said the better. Both flopped, though apocryphally at least All-American, with book by Mel Brooks, was so bad that it provided the inspiration for The Producers. Bolger and Rickard settled into Southern California, flush with wealth, and Bolger carried on a long career as everybody's favorite guest star.

"More than a scarecrow," indeed; though at that, one of the longer sections of Van Leuven's book is about the making of The Wizard of Oz, a much-told story. Ray Bolger is very, very good in Oz, and deserves his immortality. But it's easy to imagine a world where Buddy Ebsen teamed with Jack Haley and Bert Lahr to escort Judy Garland down the yellow bricks. And in that alternative reality, Ray Bolger's great career is now a handful of YouTube clips that nobody ever watches.

Van Leuven, Holly. Ray Bolger: More than a scarecrow. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. PN 2287 .B4845V35