Film Review: Troupers
They were beautiful and handsome and fun and they entertained us. Sometimes they were overshadowed by actors and actresses whose stars shone more brightly and at other times they found themselves all alone and in the spotlight. Troupers, a splendid one hour and twenty-four minute documentary film, produced by actresses Dea Lawrence and Sara Ballantine, focuses on the lives of performers such as Jane Kean (The Honeymooners), Carl Ballantine, Allan Rich, Ivy Bethune, Marvin Kaplin (film: Adam's Rib, TV: Mel's Diner, Meet Millie) Pat Carroll, Kaye Ballard (Mothers In Law), Larry Parks, Betty Garrett and Connie Sawyer. The producers deliberately steered away from more famous people who appeared in film and on stage. This film is one of the most inspirational films to come our way in a very long time and it comes at a time when an aging America needs to hear that you still have a lot to give and the rest of America needs to listen and realize that lives do not end when you turn fifty years old. All of these actors and actresses had careers that spanned decades and extended well into their senior years when they were in their eighties and in some cases their nineties.
Emmy and Grammy Award winning actress Pat Caroll, who was a regular on the television show Laverne and Shirley and the sitcom Make Room For Daddy, serves up this poignant thought, “Age has nothing to do with anything. If you have a talent and you have done it all of your life, why stop.”
Dea Lawrence and Sara Ballantine, who had never before produced a film of any type, have produced a film that not only chronicles the lives of these performers, but it is highly entertaining and insightful.
There are humorous lines and this writer neglected to write down the individual in the film who came up with this one, “As you get older you get applause just for walking up stairs.”
Another of those humorous moments occurs when Allan Rich recalls how he got his stage name. He was dancing and as he and his dance partner passed the bandstand he was lamenting how he was going to have to change his name, because it just did not seem to fit the entertainment world.
The bandstand leader looked down and said to him, “How would you like my old name?”
Allan Rich replied, “What was your old name?”
He replied, “Allan Rich.”
“I will take it,” said Allan Rich.
What immediately strikes you about these performers is how hard they worked at their craft, how candidly they talked about the difficult times and the lean years and how all of them still had that passion for their craft, burning deeply in their hearts. Jane Kean and Betty Garrett who passed away early in 2011 were still beautiful and Carl Ballantine, who we also lost in recent years, was delightful and funny.
Unlike so many documentaries that can be tedious, this one moves well and the producers kept the interview clips short, moving from one performer to another and interspersing vintage film clips and photos to give us a sense of relevancy and understanding. There was Betty Garrett in the 1949 film On The Town, breathtakingly beautiful as a taxi driver. There were funny scenes of Carl Ballantine acting in McHale’s Navy and equally funny film footage of Carl Ballantine performing his magic act on shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show. There is a vintage photograph of Priscilla Beach Theater in Massachusetts from 1947 the year that Pat Carroll got her start in show business.
There are also sad moments as we remember a dark period in American history in the early fifties when Senator Joe McCarthy launched the Red Scare and many people in theater and film were persecuted and subsequently blacklisted, depriving them of their careers, people like Larry Parks who originated the Jolson Story and his wife Betty Garrett. Allan Rich’s career was stripped away in 1953 and what was his crime? He was on the Theater Action Committee that was attempting to free a black man named Willie McGee who had been lynched in Mississippi. Jane Kean had been asked to do a benefit for the Russian War Relief and when she did, even though she had never been a member of the Communist Party, the Journal American trumpeted the headline Broadway Actress Joins Communist Party. Ed Sullivan called on her behalf and made them retract the headline.
Ivy Bethune says she did not even realize that she has been blacklisted. She talks about marching for Unemployment Insurance and against discrimination and lynching, “I wasn’t carrying a bomb. I wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Ivy Bethune (Father Murphy) knew at age six that she wanted to be an actress and Kaye Ballard (Mothers In Law) knew at age seven. Pat Carroll was an avid reader and enjoyed spending a lot of time at the library and one day she says she stumbled into the drama section where she opened a book and read a play that had a Cockney maid in it. She wanted to be that maid. Connie Sawyer’s inspiration for an acting career came when her mother took her on a ferry to see Fanny Brice at the Current Theater. Carl Ballantine’s interest in becoming a magician, which later led to a career as an actor as well, was stirred by the barber who used to come to his parents’ house to cut his hair. The barber kept him seated by performing magic tricks.
“After five or six months of this, I star doing the tricks and I start doing them better than him,” says Ballantine.
Bruce Kirby says, “I think Sinatra wrecked my life. I went to see him when I was twelve. He was singing with Tommy Dorsey. He made it look so easy and I said if he can sing, I can sing. (he laughs)”
Betty Garrett recalls, “When I was seventeen years old, my mother quit a perfectly good job in Seattle to take me to New York, because I had a (theater) scholarship It was a very courageous thing to do.”
Kaye Ballard serves up a funny line in the film, “I was too fat to be a stripper and I was a rotten waitress.”
Marvin Kaplan says, (with a laugh) “My play was accepted at Yale, but I wasn’t. They decided to do the play without me.” He attended USC to be a radio writer and he says he was lucky enough to have a professor there named William Demille who was Cecil B. Demille’s older brother. Mr. Demille saw my play and he laughed and he directed me in a number of shows.”
Marvin Kaplan talks about his first acting job in Moliere’s Doctor In Spite of Himself (he chuckles as he talks about reading it with a Brooklyn accent) and how “Katharine Hepburn, saw the show fourteen weeks afterwards and she said to me, ‘You’re Marvin Kaplan aren’t you? And I said yes I am. She said you’ve done a lot of work haven’t you and I said no, this is my first job. There was something about her, she was so beautiful and she wore no makeup. She was about forty years old then and gorgeous. She was lovely. I came to the rehearsal and I was dressed like a schlump and I saw on the bulletin board that I should report to MGM. I was trying to get a job there as a paige and I thought that is why they had called me. I turned over the card and it was a different extension. It was George Cukor’s office. I had an interview at three o’clock and it was now one o’clock. I went to Mr. Cukor’s office in the Irving Thalberg Building. He said, Katharine Hepburn is your agent. She recommended you for this part of a very monotonous trial reporter who reads back this very emotional testimony in a very dull, flat voice. I said I have a very dull, flat voice. That’s how I started, it was all due to Hepburn.”
The film was Adam’s Rib. The movie starred Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Judy Holiday. There is a short clip from the movie in the film Troupers, involving a scene between Hepburn and Tracy who were opposing lawyers married to one another, and Kaplan.
There is so much more that we could share with you about
the film Troupers, but instead, we
will simply invite you to keep your eye on the
facebook page for the film and stay tuned for the next time
the film is in a theater near you. You can also read our interview
with the producers Dea Lawrence and Sara Ballantine by
clicking on this link.
You can also read our interview with the producers Dea Lawrence and Sara Ballantine by clicking on this link.
Top photo: Carl Ballantine; Second Photo: Jane Kean; Bottom Photo: Connie Sawyer
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