Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Topsy and Eva, 1927

First, a disclaimer. Urgh - blackface! That's a pretty sensible modern-day reaction, I think, to Topsy and Eva, 1927, the first movie Nils Asther did after he sailed the seas from Europe to the golden land of Hollywood. 

Hal Erickson in the New York Times comments that:
Worthless as entertainment, Topsy and Eva is nonetheless an invaluable record of the sorry state of race relations in the 1920s.
The Duncan sisters had been vaudeville stars for several years already touring the stage show of the same name, written specially for them by Catherine Chisholm Cushing in 1923. The sisters estimated that throughout their career they performed at least 1,800 shows of Topsy and Eva, and continued to adapt aspects of it for their repertoire right up to the 1950s.
Topsy and Eva were originally minor characters in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the stage show, the sentimental story of the friendship between the two girls took centre stage, with most of the social commentary of the original was ditched in favour of slapstick, maudlin sentiment and close-harmony songs. Musical hits included Rememb'ring, I Never Had A Mammy, Mean Cicero Blues and She Fell On Her Credenza.

Topsy and Eva music score for Rememb'ring, their biggest hit

Topsy and Eva as a movie was a box office flop, but it was used for some time after as cheap children's matinee fodder. A 2-in-1 transformation toy, the 'Topsy and Eva' doll, became popular among girls, which changed character when its skirt was flipped. All combined with the long-running stage show, Topsy and Eva left long-term cultural effects.

John Sullivan at the University of Virginia notes:

A review of the stage play by The Boston Globe critic in 1925... pointed out that while "every American" had heard about Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was unlikely that "more than a small percentage of the present younger generation of theatre goers in the large cities of the country have ever witnessed a performance of the play" -- let alone read the novel.... In a way Topsy and Eva became the origin story for those who had neither read the novel nor were aware of its aims. 
Vivian Duncan with a Topsy doll, 1926 (image University of Virginia)

 Topsy and Eva doll transfer pattern by Vogart, sold after 1941
These dolls were popular right up to WWII and examples are still easy to find. 

Nils Asther was cast in Topsy and Eva as 

Lobby card: Topsy indulges in comic foolery by dressing up as Santa Claus
A typically melodramatic scene:
The villainous Simon Legree (Gibson Gowland) whips Uncle Tom (Noble Johnson) while George Shelby (Nils Asther) protects little Topsy (Rosetta Duncan)

Nils Asther was


December 7, 8 1931
Mabel’s friends Rosetta & Vivian Duncan, who at one point were said to be worth over $4,000,000 were now bankrupt according to Vivian …”Gold mines with no gold, worthless stock, the fickleness of Wall Street and signatures on too many dotted lines’ were responsible.

Nils Asther with the Duncan sisters as Topsy and Eva in 1931
Shrine charity benefit show, Los Angeles

Duncan Sisters Score Brilliant Triumph at Gala Egyptian Premiere

By Louella G. Parsons
  THE efferverscent personality of the incomparable Duncans permeated the atmosphere of Grauman's Egyptian Theater last night. Long before the curtain rose on a scene of picturesque old Southland, there was an electric air of expectancy. Rosetta and Vivian were presenting their first motion picture, "Topsy and Eva," to their severest critics, the Hollywood film colony. Moreover, they were being starred in the prologue, and the Duncan following would travel miles to hear those "two gals" sing.
  Rosetta's blackface Topsy and Vivian's angel face Eva are an old story, so far as the stage is concerned, but the motion picture is for the sisters a new and untried experiment. I felt reasonably sure when Sid Grauman elected to play "Topsy and Eva" at his theater it had merit, but I did not dream that a female Charlie Chaplin in black-face was to make her debut. Rosetta Duncan is a discovery. Her pantomime, her transition from nonsense to pathos, is something that has been needed in the comedy field.
  Vivian, with her fluffy blonde hair, is likewise good in her way. Although the comedy is all Rosetta's, Vivian photographs unusally well, and is what the producers would call camera material.
  I am getting the cart ahead of the horse. I should really have gone into a detailed description of the prologue before I so much as mentioned the Duncans' work in the movie.
  To tell the truth, I was so delighted with Rosetta's Al Jolson stuff, that I had to get it out of my system. Rosetta is to the screen what Al Jolson is to the stage, a black-face artist without an equal.
  The Duncans and Sid Grauman are a great trio. The Duncans furnish the sparkling comedy and Sid offers the Graumanesque touch, now recognized as the Tiffany of showmanship. Certainly he took advantage of the way-down-south motive by giving us a generous measure of plantation life. There were the jubilee singers, tuneful and melodious; southern belles in their quaint costumes. Even the Mississippi flowed gently in the background.
  Rosetta and Vivian just had to sing "Rememb'ring" along with the new numbers especially composed for this occasion. The audience not only expected it, but demanded it. Then there was that old favorite, "She Fell Down On Her Cadenza." The applause that greeted this effort must make the girls realize that no matter how many new songs they have, they must always keep a few old-time favorites in their repetoire.
  Of the new songs, I like "I'm Glad My Mammy Don't Know Where I'm At." But any of their songs are good. It's not so much what the Duncans sing, as they way they sing. Their comedy is unfailing. Their burlesque on Aimee would make the saddest man in the world forget his troubles. It is riotously funny. As for their potpourri burlesqueing grand opera, I must hear it again.
  The prologue, mind you, lasted an hour and ten minutes. An evening's entertainment in itself. Larry Cabellos' dance presentation and "The Rounders" were especially pleasing. Marguerite Ricard, a girl with a voice, deserves special mention for her solo work. Al and Ray Samuels, Eleanor Bingham, Claire Van Nostrand, Esther Campbell, Norm Rathert and the Duncans were called out again and again, showing that sprightliness in these prologues is the better part of real success.
  "Topsy and Eva" is so short, at least it seemed to me, that one does not feel the lengthy prologue in this case is stealing precious time from the celluloid entertainment. Too often we jealously object to too much attention being given to the prologue.
  Who but the Duncans would have thought of taking Harriet Beecher Stowe's serious propaganda against slavery and making a comedy out of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? The curious part is, the poignant note of pathos here and there is almost akin to hilarious fun. Catherine Chisholm Cushing is credited with the authorship of "Topsy and Eva," but the movie idea, I feel safe in saying, emanates from that wise little head of Topsy Duncan.
  It is remarkable that a production built of such flimsy material carries the interest through to the end. This is due entirely to the Duncans, whose charm and vivacity would support a much less frail scenario structure. The slapstick touches, I think, we can credit to Del Lord. There are a number that can be favorably compared to any slapstick comedy yet produced—then, there are a few that are not so funny. But even these are saved by Topsy, who never fails to get a laugh out of any situation.
  David Wark Griffith was called in to add a little drama. I am willing to wager his part in "Topsy and Eva" was the great love between the ethereal Eva and her colored slavey. There are unmistakable Griffith bits here and there that have saved the picture from too much horseplay.
  The titles by Dudley Early are good. They please this reviewer because they are not unnecessarily wisecracking, a thing that always ruins a comedy.
  There just couldn't be a version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" without Simon Legree. He is present in the person of Gibson Gowland, ferocious and cruel enough to satisfy anyone. Henry Victor makes an aristocratic and kindly Mr. St. Clare. Myrtle Ferguson is pleasing in the part of Aunt Ophelia, while Nils Asher and Marjorie Daw furnish the love interest in roles that are not particularly big, but they do register. Noble Johnson's Uncle Tom seemed to me to be far too elegant and young. However, this Uncle Tom is only a background.
  "Topsy and Eva" does one thing for us. It makes us eager to see the Duncans in other comedies—and I have an idea that Joseph Schenck, who is releasing their first through United Artists, will see that this wish is gratified. Everyone in filmland was there last night—all of them properly introduced by Hollywood's master of ceremonies, Fred Niblo. 

Clips from Topsy and Eva featuring Nils Asther:

Clip 1 Introducing the characters at the start of the film - Uncle Sam and family, Marietta, ward of the villain Simon Legree, and George Shelby (Nils Asther).
Clip 2 Topsy comes down the chimney at Christmas dressed as Santa Claus. The assembled party laugh.
Clip 3  Topsy and Uncle Tom are carried away by Tom's owner, Simon Legree, in a sled through the snow. Eva, unable to bear the thought of Topsy leaving, runs after them until she falls in a fit. George Shelby (Asther) picks her up and carries her back to her house.

Further Information:  

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Picture of the day: what difference whether girl or man?

 Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in The Single Standard, 1929. 

Asther plays a rich artist with a yacht. Garbo is a young socialite who resolves to reject hypocritical and out of date moral standards (The Single Standard) and so takes Asther as her lover and sails with him through tropical seas.


Saturday, 29 October 2011

Wednesday, 26 October 2011