With commentary by Barbara Walters, among others, including Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein and the late Mickey Rooney, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker diligently retraces her career in cleverly pictured (and occasionally animated) scrapbook clippings and interviews to rediscover an influential American performer.
Sophie Tucker, in case you haven’t heard of her, was a fat, Jewish singer, actress and comedienne, as the co-producers affectionately describe her in this 2014 documentary, scheduled for theatrical release next week. After her parents came from the Ukraine to America in 1886 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they opened a kosher restaurant, Sophie was dispatched to hustle predominantly Jewish actors at a local theater’s stage door into patronizing the restaurant. It’s in this endeavor that Sophie, raised as an orthodox Jew, apparently became hooked on burlesque or Vaudeville—brash and unsophisticated—a type of live theater experience popular through the 1930s.
Without sugarcoating her early career, when Tucker did blackface on stage as a “coon shouter”, a term which Michael Feinstein thoughtfully puts into context, the filmmakers make it clear that this bawdy woman earned her reputation as a pathbreaking performer who legitimized this type of broad humor. Paving the way for Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester and Cher, not to discredit Mae West and other bossy dames of the day, Sophie Tucker, who took her name from one of three ex-husbands, broke big first in Ziegfeld’s Follies. She worked with an unknown Irving Berlin and other legendary musical and comedy acts. William Morris, whom she met before he was the owner of the famous artist agency when he was still known as a theater owner, represented her for 60 years.
Sophie Tucker was a star.
As The Outrageous Sophie Tucker demonstrates, her singing technique involved calculated hesitation and Feinstein points out that in developing her distinctive vocal style, Tucker rarely gets the credit she deserves, which usually goes to black singers such as Bessie Smith. Tony Bennett (Amy) calls her the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived. Part of what makes her worth examining as a mainstream, popular performer is her endurance. Like Bob Hope, she succeeded in a variety of show formats.
The movie sheds light on the reasons. During Prohibition, for example, she allied with criminal mobs to play in their now-illegal clubs, she was pals with Al Capone—she was pals with J. Edgar Hoover, too—and she didn’t seem ashamed to be arrested in Portland, Oregon for a show in which she implied that women crave sex as much as men. In fact, she started commissioning songs about sex after the arrest and she crowned herself the headmistress of the school of “red hot mamas” that could teach girls about sex.
Several scrapbook items and interviews show her shrewd use of publicity and knack for salesmanship. As early as 1909, Tucker took out ads in newspapers saying Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings to her fans, which was unheard of, in a kind of pre-social media grasp of the long-term value of relationship building with a fan base. She earned (and hustled herself into) numerous endorsements, was asked by Warner Bros. to be the first female lead to make a talking motion picture and kept company with her co-stars and peers such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Robert Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Carol Channing and Danny Kaye, each of whom is interviewed or chronicled here. The woman, who worked rhyming into her routines with banter, including her television debut in 1951 on Jimmy Durante’s show, was like a constantly running motor.
Sophie had standards. She didn’t like TV’s censors, for instance, though she liked doing Ed Sullivan’s show. Even this late in her career, Sophie Tucker appeared at ease integrating business with the show, timing her bi-annual appearances on Ed Sullivan with revamped routines to foster demand for her stage act. More than outrageousness, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows her business savvy as the key to her sustained popularity throughout her 60-year career. She knew what people expected from, and liked about, her and she knew her limitations.
Along the way, she played poker, gin and pinochle—her father had sneaked young Sophie out for gambling as a girl—dabbling in solitaire to calm her nerves, according to scholar Jan Lewis, PhD. Sophie’s three husbands, a man named Tuck, Frank Westphal and Al Lackey, are covered as is her only child, Bert, whom she showered with gifts including the failed Robert E. Lee hotel in Miami, which finally seemed to disabuse her of the delusion that he could make something of his life. Also featured is her longtime pianist, Ted Shapiro, who was loyal to the end. The movie suggests that she later held exclusively gay relationships such as an intimate relationship with a doctor named Margaret Chung.
Whatever personal details, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows that Tucker’s professional legacy is strong and lasting. Sophie Tucker appears on the cover of Ebony with Josephine Baker, whom she introduced at a Miami nightclub following racist death threats. American soldiers entering Nazi Berlin defiantly played her song about a “Yiddishe Momme” as a triumphant tribute to a fallen American Jewish soldier who loved and played her records. Perhaps the best measure of what makes Sophie Tucker outrageous is that Judy Garland said Sophie, with whom Garland co-starred in Broadway Melody of 1938, taught her “how to put a song over”. This 90-minute documentary, which is endearing by today’s depraved standards, demonstrates how Sophie Tucker taught herself and Americans how to put brassy over without going over the top.