Showbiz Moms: Tensions at Home for Ladies in the Limelight

Turner Classic Movies and film historian Richard Corliss presents Mom in the Movies, a definitive, fully illustrated book that shares the many ways Hollywood has celebrated, vilified and otherwise memorialized dear old Mom. 

With a foreword written by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, and sidebar essays by Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell, Sam Robards, and Tippi Hedren, this book is packed with an incredible collection of photographs and film stills. Mom in the Movies makes a great gift for any mom—and for anyone with a mother who oughta be in pictures.

From the cozy All-American mom to the terrifying MOMMIE DEAREST or the protective Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS, when it comes to mothers on the silver screen, it takes all kinds.

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The following is an excerpt from the book “Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (and a Few You Love to Hate)” by Richard Corliss. Copyright 2014 by Turner Classic Movies and Richard Corliss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at Amazon.com.

It’s said that everyone has two jobs: her own and show business. Such is the proprietary spell that popular entertainment casts on the mass audience. But when a woman’s main job is performing under the spotlight, managing her family can be a burden for all concerned. Movies about showbiz moms detail the grind and the glory, while touching ever so lightly on the social significance of these pioneer working women.

In the 1920s, for example, only one in four women was employed outside the home—usually either in subordinate (secretarial) roles or in positions (nurse, teacher, maid, waitress) that extended the traditional roleof motherhood into the workplace. If any job allowed women a chance at equality,even supremacy, it was acting. Ladies of the stage and then the screen became amongthe world’s most famous, loved and desired figures.

Being adored, and sustaining that popularity, was a full-time job. A movie actress might have a six a.m. makeup call; she’d be on the set when she could be driving her daughter to school, and exhausted by early evening, when the parent-teacher conference was scheduled. The life of a stage performer often required living out of suitcases; home was a series of hotels or boardinghouses; showtime for her was bedtime for her kids. It’s appropriate that the name of the definitive musical about a showbiz mother and daughter was Gypsy—not just because Gypsy Rose Lee was the stripper nom de plume taken by Mama Rose’s daughter Louise, but also because women in vaudeville and stock companies were forever on the move. Like it or not, they had the gypsy in their souls.

MOTHER WORE TIGHTS (1947).

MOTHER WORE TIGHTS (1947).

So MOTHER WORE TIGHTS in a vaudeville act with her husband, and when she went back on the road with him after twice giving birth, she left her daughters in the care of their grandmother. Desertion? No: gamely, and gamly, supporting her family the only way she knows—for Myrtle McKinley Burt is played by all-American pinup girl Betty Grable (with chipper Dan Dailey as her husband, Frank) in the 1947 Fox musical, set in the early twentieth century and based on Miriam Young’s rosy reminiscence of her song-and-dance family. The only agitation arises when the elder daughter, Iris (Mona Freeman), falls in love with a well-bred collegiate and is briefly embarrassed that her parents will be performing nearby. Chagrin is fleeting: the young man loves Myrtle as much as her audiences do, and Iris ultimately follows Mother’s example by getting married and going onstage.

APPLAUSE (1929): Burlesque matron Helen Morgan (far right) titillates the crowd, but shocks her prim daughter.

APPLAUSE (1929): Burlesque matron Helen Morgan (far right) titillates the crowd, but shocks her prim daughter.

A teenage girl could accept a mother in vaudeville. What of a mother in burlesque? In Rouben Mamoulian’s APPLAUSE (1929), one of the first talking pictures to plunder the full cinematic resources of silent films, heavyset chorines shake their stuff onstage for the lowlifes in the seats. The headliner, Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), is a true trouper: she gave birth to her daughter April one night directly after a performance. Then she sent the child to a convent school, far from the seedy luminescence of Manhattan fleshpots. When April (Joan Peers) is seventeen, she visits New York and is ushered into Kitty’s theater, where she sees what her mother does for a living, and mortification streaks her face like a tragic mask. Can it get worse? It can and does. The man Kitty has married to give April a father figure assaults the girl with kisses and groping, and insists that she join her mother’s tawdry act. April refuses, until the night Kitty dies from taking poison, and April goes on in her place—briefly, before running off with a decent guy who will rescue her from the grimy business of show.

Morgan, the torch singer who starred as Julie in the original 1927 Broadway production of Show Boat (and would reprise her role in James Whale’s 1936 film version), was only twenty-eight, nine years older than Peers, when she made APPLAUSE. Yet the star’s alcohol abuse added a couple of decades to her appearance. She is no pert twenties flapper; she’s all flapped out. When Kitty struts onstage, in a spangled costume open at the front to reveal a tiny brassiere, she almost solicits the insults—“They oughta auction off that faded old blonde!”—shouted by the customers. She endures these leers and Bronx cheers to give the daughter she cherishes a better life than hers. If only you could realize that I’m abasing myself for you, dear: that was the message of so many showbiz-mother films, from APPLAUSE to BLONDE VENUS

BLONDE VENUS (1932): Marlene Dietrich dallies with Cary Grant to support her son, Dickie Moore.

BLONDE VENUS (1932): Marlene Dietrich dallies with Cary Grant to support her son, Dickie Moore.

 

Richard Corliss joined TIME magazine in 1980 as a movie critic, a position he still holds. Before TIME, he wrote for National Review, New Times, Maclean’s of Canada and SoHo Weekly News. He was also editor for Film Comment from 1970 to 1990. Corliss is the author Talking Pictures (1974), a study of Hollywood screenwriters and their role as opposed to the director in the creation of movies. He also wrote Greta Garbo (1974). In 1994 he wrote a study of the novel and film Lolita. Corliss holds a B.A. from Saint Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and an M.S. in film studies from Columbia University. He lives in New York City with his wife, Mary.

In a 1990 article, Corliss mentions his mother clipping movie ads with quotes of his and posting them to her refrigerator door.

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