Here is some extraordinarily rare and truly one-of-a-kind footage shot from the backstage wings of the 44th Street Theater in January, 1930. It shows us a few moments of a variety show in-progress called ‘Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook’, which starred Eddie Cantor, Patsy Kelly, William Demerest and a dance team called Barto and Mann. In fact, George Mann is the reason this footage exists. In addition to being a very funny and successful ‘eccentric dancer’ (he was well over six feet and his partner Barto wasn’t quite five feet–this was the joke that made them Vaudeville headliners), Mann was a not-so-amateurish photographer of both stills and live action. He left behind a number of invaluable film reels that his family discovered after his death and have subsequently restored and made available on this excellent website. Mann shot ‘home movies’ of Broadway shows he was involved with as well as movie sets that he worked on, including some Laurel and Hardy on-location footage. There’s also quite a bit of W.C. Fields on stage.
Who was Earl Carroll? He was a showman/producer/entrepreneur who flourished in the 1920s and 30s producing reviews featuring big star names and barely dressed chorus girls. There were eleven editions of ‘Earl Carroll’s Vanities’, ‘Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook’ and ‘Murder At The Vanities’, which was also made into a film directed by Mitchell Leisen. Known as “the troubadour of the nude”, Carroll was famously arrested for an incident following a party he threw in honor of Harry K. Thaw, who 20 years earlier had murdered Stanford White. During the private party, a bathtub was brought out in which reposed a nude young woman, Joyce Hawley, bathing in illegal liquor, described in a news story at the time of Carroll’s death as champagne. One of the guests was Phillip Payne, editor of the New York Mirror. Although Carroll expected his guests would be circumspect about what happened at the party, Payne published a report. Federal authorities, apparently determined to learn the source of the illegal alcohol, subpoenaed Carroll to appear before a grand jury. Carroll denied the incident happened, but others at the party confirmed it. The federal government prosecuted Carroll for perjury, and he was convicted and sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary for six months. While there, he staged an all male version of his famous variety show featuring the inmates, called ‘Earl Carroll’s Jailbirds’, which featured cross-dressing men in the roles of the chorus girls, with the sole female worker in the penitentiary doing an imitation of Eddie Cantor (in blackface). Carroll later said it was the production of which he was most proud.