The Set-Up Delivers a Knock-Out Punch
Sunday’s installment of Noir Alley on TCM (10am ET) is a don’t-miss (set those DVRs now). The Set-Up (1949) stars the great Robert Ryan as Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, an over-the-hill boxer who can’t bring himself to pull the plug on his dreams of pugilistic glory. His wife (Audrey Totter) begs him to stop fighting, but for Stoker, it’s always the next bout that will start his climb to the top.
The problem is, Stoker loses so often that his manager has taken money from a gangster on the assurance him that Stoker will take a dive in his next fight—but he hasn’t told Stoker.
The Set-Up holds the distinction of being perhaps the only film noir to be based on a poem, a narrative work written in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March. The poem and film share a title and a premise, but March’s boxer was a skilled African-American fighter nicknamed Pansy—“He’d carve you up like a leg of mutton,” wrote March—who had just been released from prison.
The picture takes place in real time, running a tidy, tense 73 minutes. Director Robert Wise gives the picture a gritty quality that suits the subject matter (and the genre) perfectly.
If you’ve never seen what many consider to be the best boxing picture ever (and certainly the best released before 1950), here’s your chance. Don’t blow it.
Happy 130th Birthday, Chico Marx!
- Chico’s father, Samuel Marx, emigrated to the U.S. from Alsace-Loraine; his mother, Minnie Schönberg, came over from Germany. Sam, known as Frenchie, was, according to his famous sons, NYC’s worst tailor.
- Chico was the eldest of the brothers who would go on to become world famous, but he was not the first-born of Minnie and Sam’s offspring. Their first child, a son named Manfred, died as an infant.
- Of Jewish heritage, Chico honed his Italian accent as a youth, navigating the Upper East Side’s rough-and-tough Yorkville, a neighborhood where the predominant ethnicity changed from block to block, making it advisable to be able to pass when confronted with unfriendly locals.
- For most of his life, Chico had two interests: women and gambling. As a youth, he had already become such a gambler that none of the family’s possessions were safe from the pawnshop. Frenchie frequently had to pay for the privilege of retrieving his tailor’s shears.
- Chico Marx experienced much more success as a womanizer than a gambler. Though his gambling habit left him short of money most of his life, his charming (and persistent) personality paid off royally in the area of female companionship.
- Chico was not only the eldest surviving Marx brother, he was also Minnie’s favorite. She doted on him, even paying for him to take piano lessons when money was very tight. Her investment paid off as early as his adolescence, when he was paid to tickle the ivories at silent movie theatres and in bordellos (when Chico would skip out on these gigs, his younger brother Arthur (later Harpo), who closely resembled Leonard when they were young, would often take them over, though his pianistic abilities fell well short of his older brother’s).
- Chico was the last of the four elder Marxes to join the family act; Herbert (later Zeppo), born in 1912, was much younger). Chico held a number of jobs as young man, including a song plugger gig in Philadelphia that he left to team with a singer named Aaron Gordon. They formed a vaudeville act called Marx and Gordon.
- The nickname Chico is properly spelled (and pronounced) Chicko. In May 1914, during the brothers’ vaudeville years, a monologist named Art Fisher gave them their nicknames during a backstage poker game. He was inspired to dub Leonard “Chicko” because of his penchant for chasing girls—often called “chickens” or “chicks” in those days. The brothers wouldn’t use their nicknames professionally until some years later, but after they started doing so, a typesetter omitted the K when spelling Chico’s name in a theatre program, and Chico continued to use that spelling thereafter.
- In January 1942, with the Marxes’ film career not yet over but definitely winding down and with Chico, as always, in need of money, he partnered with Ben Pollack to form a touring big band. The outfit was successful but short-lived—it broke up in July 1943, but not before having released four recordings on a pair of 78s. The band can be heard in action in a 1942 appearance on the radio program The Fitch Bandwagon. Jazz crooner Mel Torme spent time with the orchestra, serving as drummer and vocalist.
- Chico’s daughter, Maxine, did a little bit of film acting in the 1930s and went on to be a successful casting director. In 1980, she wrote an affectionate but honest memoir of life with her father entitled Growing Up with Chico.
Happy birthday, Chico Marx, wherever you may be!
Happy 100th Birthday, Kirk Douglas!
- Douglas’ parents emigrated to the United States from what is now Belarus (it was at the time part of the Russian Empire). As Douglas wrote in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, “My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. … Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
- Douglas worked many odd jobs in his youth before attending St. Lawrence University. Upon graduation, he was given a special scholarship to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. One of his classmates there was Betty Joan Perske (Lauren Bacall, don’tcha know).
- Coming from a poor family, Douglas struggled greatly while studying at the American Academy, so much so that Bacall, who had acquired a crush on Douglas, gave him one of her uncle’s old coats. Douglas and Bacall were good pals, but never romantic.
- In 1941, Kirk Douglas enlisted in the Navy, where he served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare. He received a medical discharge in 1944, due to injuries he’d received.
- Douglas planned to pursue a life in the theatre, but Hollywood came calling in 1946 when Bacall, who was already a success in pictures, recommended him to producer Hal Wallis to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
- Among Douglas’ most memorable early roles were his portrayals of a steely gangster in the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947) and an unscrupulous boxer in Champion (1949). The latter gave Douglas the first of his three Oscar nominations in the Best Leading Actor category.
- Douglas made his Broadway debut in Katharine Cornell‘s production of Chekov‘s Three Sisters.
- In January 1981, Douglas, who has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the US State Department since 1963, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter.
- Douglas suffered a severe stroke in 1996 that impaired his ability to speak, but he diligently pursued treatment and rehabilitation and just weeks later, when he received a honorary Academy Award “for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community,” he was able to be on hand to deliver an inspiring acceptance speech to those on hand and millions more watching on television.
- Douglas is the author of no fewer than 10 books.
Happy birthday, Kirk Douglas, and many happy returns of the day!
Happy 120th Birthday, Ethel Waters!
Singer and actress Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, 120 years ago today. Here are 10 EW Did-You-Knows:
- Ethel’s mother was a teenage rape victim, and hers was a difficult childhood. She was raised in poverty and she never lived anywhere more than 15 months. “I never was a child,” she would say later. “I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
- Waters married at 13, but the man she married abused her and she left him to become a maid at a hotel in Philadelphia. When she was 17, she sang two songs at a costume party at a nightclub and was such a hit that she was offered work performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
- That engagement launched Waters’ career on the black vaudeville circuit. In Atlanta, she found herself working at the same club as blues legend Bessie Smith, who insisted that Waters not perform the same kind of music she was, so during their time on the same bill, Smith sang the blues and Waters stuck to popular songs.
- In 1919, Waters made her way to Harlem, debuting at a black club there called Edmond’s Cellar.
- In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record on the small Cardinal label. Before long, she moved up to Black Swan Records, where she recorded with Fletcher Henderson. In 1925, she signed with Columbia records, for whom she recorded the hit song, Dinah (in 1998, that recording was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, one of three such awards Waters’ 1920s recordings received).
- As her star continued to rise, Waters began to play “white” vaudevile on the Keith Circuit, which paid more and increased her fame.
- In 1929, Waters introduced the Harry Akst song, Am I Blue? It was a huge hit for her and became her signature song.
- In the early 1930s, Waters starred at the Cotton Club and appeared in Irving Berlin’s hit musical revue As Thousands Cheer; she was the first black woman to appear in an otherwise all-white show.
- In 1933, Waters was, thanks to her continuing nightclub work, her stage success and her national radio program, the highest paid performer on Broadway.
- In the 1940s, Waters’ career was on the wane and she experienced legal and health problems. In 1951, she wrote her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels. A later memoir, To Me, It’s Wonderful, established her birth year as 1896; she’d been lying about her age for some time in order to get a group insurance policy.
- In her later years, Waters began to focus on gospel music and spirituals, often touring with evangelist Billy Graham. In 1983, she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Happy birthday, Ethel Waters, wherever you may be!
Happy 98th Birthday, Diana ‘Baby Peggy’ Serra Cary!
Sadly, there are very few stars of the silent era who are still with us today, but Diana Serra Cary, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery 98 years ago today in San Diego, was, as Baby Peggy, a bona fide star in her day. Here are 10 DSC/BP Did-You-Knows:
- Peggy’s father, Jack Montgomery, worked as a cowboy for some years before entering the movie business, working as a stuntman and extra. He eventually did some stand-in work for western star Tom Mix.
- Young Peggy-Jean was discovered at the age of 19 months when she accompanied her mother to visit her father, who was working at Century Studios in Hollywood. Director Fred Fishbach (later Fred Hibbard), impressed by her demeanor and ability to take direction (from her parents, that is), cast her in a short subject opposite Century’s popular canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog. Baby Peggy’s picture debut was in Playmates (1921). When it proved a success, she was signed to a long-term contract.
- From 1921 to 1924, Peggy appeared in nearly 150 comedy shorts for Century. These films were often parodies of other popular movies of the day, so Peggy was sometimes asked to satirize popular stars (she did take-offs on both Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in Peg o’ the Movies ).
- In 1923, Peggy began to appear in full-length dramatic features for Universal. These films were “A” pictures, dubbed “Universal Jewels,” the studio’s designation for its top-shelf offerings.
- In 1922, Peggy received more than 1.2 million fan letters. She was so popular that between pictures, she was sent on nationwide promotional tours, making public appearances along the way to promote her movies.
- By 1923, Universal was paying Peggy $1.5 million a year (more than $20 million today). Her face also appeared on a wide range of commercial products, from dolls in her likeness to sheet music, jewelry and milk. It’s said that as a girl, Judy Garland owned a Baby Peggy doll.
- You can probably guess the rest of the story: Her parents blew through all that money Peggy was earning, putting nothing aside for her. Her movie career came to a halt in 1925 (she was all of seven years old) when her father had a falling out with a producer over her salary and cancelled her contract. She was successful in vaudeville for a few years thereafter, but with a stage name like Baby Peggy, her career was bound to trail off. It was a relief to her when her career slowed down, but her parents relied on her for their income and kept the pressure on her, so she returned to pictures, playing bit parts and doing extra work.
- Finally, in 1938, Peggy appeared in her last film, Having Wonderful Time, and married Gordon Ayres, after which she changed her name to Diana Ayres (and then to Diana Serra Cary when she converted to Catholicism and remarried—Serra is her confirmation name, and her second husband was named Robert “Bob” Cary).
- In her later years, Diana has authored several books, among them The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star and her autobiography, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star.
- These days, Diana lives in Gustine, California. There was a push recently for her to be allowed to reside at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Woodland Hills retirement facility, but she is in good health, physically and mentally and wanted to remain in California’s Central Valley, near her son and his family. What she needed was financial assistance, not a residence. If you’d like to help her out, you can buy one or more of her acclaimed books (she’s a very good writer), you can send her a Paypal donation using the email address BabyPeggy1920 at att.net (her son oversees that account), or you can send her a card with a check to 738 Fifth Avenue, Gustine, CA 95322.
Happy birthday, Diana Serra Cary, and many happy returns of the day!
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944