Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Mystery of Bonnie Bonnell

Just recently, Geoff asked me for my opinion of Bonnie Bonnell: "Was she the least talented woman of all time, or is there some sly in-joke going on?"

If I had been asked this a few years ago, I probably would have leaned towards the former. Bonnie Bonnell, as any fool could plainly see ("Ah kin plainly see that!"), was Ted Healy's talentless showgirl inamorata, a secondary component of his stage act that had found herself out of her depths once the act had gone Hollywood. How else to explain her flailing dance number in Beer and Pretzels or her stilted non-performance in Nertsery Rhymes? But now, having given the matter some thought, I just don't know..

Following Soup To Nuts for Fox in 1930, Ted's stooge act had split and then reformed, with Curly Howard replacing both his older brother Shemp and fourth stooge "Pansy" Sanborn. There was yet another new addition to the act; Marion Wright "Bonny" Bonnell, Ted's first and only lady stooge. In 1932, a Hollywood nightclub appearance had led to a one-year contract with MGM, the most prestigious studio in town, and one with a tin ear when it came to comedy. Ted and co. were quickly put to work in shorts (40% new material, 60% unused MGM musical and specialty numbers) and, separately, all over the studio. Strike that.. Separately, except for Bonnie, who was relegated solely to the Healy shorts. At first glance, the reasons would appear obvious. Nertsery Rhymes presents Bonnie as MGM "eye candy", trying her damnedest to shimmy, shake, and belt out tunes as a bizarre "fairy godmother". She also plays straightwoman to Ted's stooges, delivering feed lines in a dull, lifeless monotone. Poor Bonnie is absolutely dreadful on all counts and even seems vaguely resentful. She fares little better in her next film, Beer and Pretzels, in which she receives a showy song and dance number that is so strange and inept that one has to wonder what contemporary audiences were supposed to make of it.

The third MGM Ted Healy short, Hello Pop!, is sadly missing, but the fourth, Plane Nuts, provides us with an extremely rare look at Healy's stage act.. or, at least, the final incarnation of it. Moe Howard introduces Ted, "Ladies and gentlemen. Ted Heel... Phew!", and receives the first of many, many slaps. Shortly after, as Ted sings, Bonnie dashes out onto the stage to cram a load of flowers into Ted's outstretched hand. Later, she rejoins Ted and the stooges during their standard patter routine ("What's your name?" "George Washington." "You picked out a good name. You the fella who chopped down the cherry tree?" "Naw.. I ain't worked in a year and a half!"). Bonnie's costume marks her as an eccentric, but her delivery still sounds somewhat restrained. Nevertheless, she plays her part as a genuine stooge, even going into a conspiratorial huddle with Moe, Larry, and Curly during the strange "Take a number from one to ten" routine.

The fifth, and final, Healy MGM short is something of a revelation. In The Big Idea, Ted stars as the owner and sole employee of The Big Idea Scenario Company, whose attempts at scenario writing are forever interrupted by a steady stream of intruders wandering through his office. The principal intruder is Bonnie, whose innate eccentricity has finally broken through. No longer the bland showgirl of the earlier shorts, she appears now as seemingly deranged cleaning woman, dumping basket after basket of trash into Ted's office. Ted is irate. "There's one thing I'd like to ask you. Why do you throw all of the garbage into my office every night?" Bonnie responds by laughing defiantly and poking Ted in the chest. "I knew.. I knew you were gonna ask me that question!" she says before wandering off to another corner of the office. Ted is not satisfied with her response. "Say! Why don't you answer me?" Suddenly, Bonnie seems more receptive. "Oh.. The reason is.. I like to clean the whole building into one room." she replies, illustrating her point with oddly elaborate hand gestures. "It makes it so much easier to clean up the rubbish!" Ted decides to pitch his story idea to Bonnie, who listens attentively with an intense, almost Harpo-esqe, look on her face. She even suggests a story idea of her own to Ted, growing increasingly, and inexplicably, angry as she outlines it:

"Why don't you write a story about a gentleman who makes love to a lady and they go for a walk in the woods and the lady finds out he's NO GENTLEMAN!!!"

At the end, Ted's girlfriend, Muriel Evans, catches Ted and Bonnie in an embrace and beans him over the head with a hammer. Unlike their previous shorts, The Big Idea presents Ted and Bonnie as a double act, with Howard, Fine, and Howard appearing as little more than a running gag (a brilliant one, though) with a few lines at the end. What had happened behind the scenes to bring this about? Was it perhaps a change of director? Jack Cummings had been the team's regular up to this point. The Big Idea was helmed by an uncredited William Beaudine. Whatever had happened, Bonnie has here become the precursor of Mabel Todd, Ted's loony love interest in Hollywood Hotel. It just seems more appropriate for his seedy, tough-talking screen character to hook up with deranged women ("I like you! You have such a nice swollen face!" says Mabel, complimenting Ted in HH) than, say, Muriel Evans.

I have a confession to make. I've skipped a film here. In 1933, between Plane Nuts and The Big Idea, MGM loaned Ted and co. to Universal where they appeared in Myrt and Marge, a backstage story based on a popular radio soap opera. I have yet to see this movie! Bonnie reportedly has a running gag as a gatecrasher. Can anyone here tell me how Bonnie plays her role? Is this the Bizarro Bonnie of The Big Idea or the Bland Bonnie of Beer and Pretzels? If the former.. well, I don't know what that means. If the latter.. I don't know what that means, either.

Bonnie's final screen appearance is in Paramount's Hollywood On Parade, episode B-9, one of those creaky (and sometimes creepy) newsreel-type shorts that show Hollywood stars at work and play.. or, in this instance, stumbling around a Paramount set that's supposed to look like a speakeasy. Silent comedian Ben Turpin is on hand in an awkward performance that reveals exactly why his career had ended with the coming of sound (before, actually). Major comedy acts of 1934 such as Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, and Wheeler and Woolsey make lackluster appearances as well, but the limelight belongs instead to Ted, Bonnie, and the stooges. "Please.. I beg your pardon.." says Bonnie, attracting Ted's attention by jabbing him in the shoulders. "Is your name Ted Heel?" Ted turns around and looks straight through her. "No, Ted Healy the name is, not "Heel"." "Listen.." she says. "Did you originate stogies?" "What?" "Are you the first person who ever had stogies?"

Oh.. stooges! Does Bonnie represent a deranged fan? Maybe one of those people who stopped Ted in public to ask him bizarre questions? It's likely that Ted was often asked whether or not he was the first comic to use stooges, and he probably would have replied in the affirmative. Whether he was or not, he certainly took the concept further than anyone else in the business. It's more than likely that Ted was the first comic to use a female stooge.

Ted has no time to bother with Bonnie's question. Instead, he turns to Larry Fine and says, out of nowhere, "I want you to be a nice boy. When you're a nice boy, your fairy godmother always watches over you." "Your what?" asks Larry. "Your fairy godmother always watches over you!" Bizarrely, Ted turns to Bonnie in anticipation of the punchline:

"I have an uncle I'm not sure of..."

Ted can't slap a woman, so Larry gets it in the kisser. "None of that now." Back to Bonnie. "But I wanna know.." she warbles like a brain-damaged Zasu Pitts. "You know, I know a system.. But I know how you make people laugh!" "You do, huh?" "Yes.. I certainly..." she trails off. "How?" demands Ted. Bonnie slaps Ted awkwardly and walks away. Ted is unfazed. "You're wrong, lady!" The stooges attempt to demonstrate the true Healy laugh-grabbing method by slapping each another, but to no avail. Healy has no alternative but to demonstrate himself. "This is the way, isn't it?" Ted unleashes his devastating gattling gun triple-slap, getting each of his stooges squarely in the face with a single sweep of his arm.

In this brief clip, as in The Big Idea, Bonnie Bonnell displays a peculiar sense of comedy that works well within the framework of Healy's highly peculiar act. You may not find her funny here (I do) but she's certainly anything but a cypher. Let's keep in mind, also, that she was no novice, having been appearing on Broadway since at least 1925. In 1926, Bonnie was in the ensemble of Clark and McCullough's biggest Broadway hit, The Ramblers, and was apparently discovered by that show's director, Phillip Goodman, for she next appeared in Goodman's Five O' Clock Girl as "Molly the Maid". There then followed an association with Ted Healy's good friend producer/director Billy Rose, first in a 1930-31 revue entitled Sweet and Low, and finally, later that year, in Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt with Ted and his replacement stooges, Garner, Wolf, and Hakins. According to Bill Cappello, Mousie Garner recalled Bonnie as "a very good dancer", but little else. While Ted and Bonnie definitely did strike up a relationship, her role in Ted's act was anything but payback for services rendered. Not even Ted Healy was impulsive enough to sabotage his own act with a non-talent. But here's the mystery: what was Bonnie to Ted's act? Even with her performance in Plane Nuts as a record, she remains obscure. Ted and his stooges display an easy chemistry built up over years of joint vaudeville experience, but Bonnie's relationship with the team, even her very personality, shifts dramatically from one film to the next. Sometimes she's a comic eccentric, sometimes a vamp, sometimes a stooge.. In some shorts she appears to be a budding comic talent; in others, terminally incompetent. Was this the result of studio interference? Was her original role in Healy's act as a legitimate stooge vetoed by MGM execs who, feeling that audiences wouldn't accept her as an eccentric, attempted to recast her as something more traditional? Or was her nebulous characterization in films merely a reflection of her nebulous function in the act; a trial and error process intended to figure out exactly what to do with Bonnie in movies until her contract ran out?

Ultimately, the only performer under that unifying one-year contract that MGM knew what to do with was Ted Healy. Ted had range as an actor that the others lacked; by the time of his death in 1937, he appeared poised to emerge as a major comedy star.. for Warner Brothers. MGM was simply not a studio for comedy, and it's just as well that they let Howard, Fine, and Howard slip through their fingers because the stooges would have been left to rot on the vine. Instead, Columbia beckoned.

Which leaves Bonnie Bonnell.

Bonnie had not made enough of an impression during her year at MGM to count for anything once the contract expired. Her once promising career with Healy had turned into a dead end. Despite the dissolution of the act and a lack of offers to continue in film, Bonnie remained in LA. Her bills were probably paid by Ted for a time, but this wouldn't have lasted long. In 1935, Ted, an affirmed firebug who reportedly carried a flask of kerosene in his garter, landed in jail for breaking into her apartment and using her stove to set fire to some chairs and some of her clothes. She refused to press charges, claiming it had all been a "misunderstanding". Who knows? The following year, Bonnie married a auto parts salesman named Jack Hayes. She spent the rest of her life in LA, dying in 1964 of liver failure at the age of 58.

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Blogger East Side said...

Wow -- you're far more generous than I am regarding Ted and Bonnie. In the '80s, a New York revival house ran the MGM/Stooges shorts and we audience members groaned everytime those two opened their mouths. A few years later I taped those shorts off TNT; maybe I should give them another shot. By the way, AMC ran "Myrt & Marge" about 15 years ago -- the only thing I can remember about it is that the Stooges have more screentime than I expected and that there's an outrageously gay character named Clarence. Bonnie made no impression on me. Another tape I'll have to dig out from storage -- if I can find it...

10:11 AM  
Anonymous John Owen said...

I have to agree with East Side. You're cutting Bonnie a lot of slack.

"Bizarrely, Ted turns to Bonnie in anticipation of the punchline"

No, Ted turns to Bonnie because her timing is off and he's trying to prompt her visually in order to minimize the time everyone has to stand there in silence. He should, naturally, turn when he does in reaction to a crisp, alert response to Larry's line -- when this doesn't happen, he turns anyway to preserve the pacing of the routine.

9:37 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

The Stooges (with Shemp) do the same thing in their appearance on an episode of the Frank Sinatra Show. They play waiters at Frank's party and, pros that they are, react to a doorbell that's supposed to ring after one of Frank's line. Unfortunately, the sound effects guy comes in about two seconds too late, forcing the Stooges to repeat their take.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous John Owen said...

In fact, after looking at the clip again, I'm now wondering if Bonnie's slip up didn't occur even earlier. How's this scenario -- Ted has his "your fairy godmother always watches over you" line. Bonnie's cue is the first read of that line. Larry can tell she's not going to respond and asks "your what?", prompting Ted to repeat the line and give Bonnie a second whack at it. When this fails, Ted turns to her to see if she's still there! Finally, this bring her back in and she delivers the punchline. An additional speculation is that this happened before during rehearsal of the scene, and the routine actually evolved to give Bonnie more time to jump in. In any case, Ted is sharp and professional throughout the bit, and if that moment looks bizarre, it's much more likely to be Bonnie slipping up than he. Just my opinion.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I showed "Lost Stooges" to my mother and she couldn't understand why Bonnie didn't make it into features!?!?!?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Bonnie Bonnell, the human Rorschach test. I'm still at a loss. I don't think I'm cutting her *that* much slack to say I find her funny at times, but I can understand why people tend to write her off. I still believe she had talent.. I've seen worse.. but the footage she's left behind makes little sense. I still need to know what she was to Ted's act.

In that Hollywood On Parade short, I can't tell for sure, but it looks as though Ted is mouthing the "I have an uncle.." line as he turns to Bonnie. Hmm.

9:31 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

Aaron: After watching that clip, I'm willing to at least understand your point of view. Bonnie's delivery is either utterly off-kilter or remarkably similar to today's "ironic" comedy (e.g., Letterman). I can sure tell how Moe got his delivery from Ted, though.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Well, we know that her off-kilter delivery is a calculated performance; her "straight" delivery, as seen in Beer and Pretzels, is hopeless. As Ted Healy nearly single-handedly established the concept of the "ironic" comic semi-performance, I tend towards the belief that Bonnie's final characterization was part and parcel of that aesthetic. But it's all very subjective.. it has to be by nature. Ted's act was a unique amalgam of old-fashioned vaudeville, personified by his stooges ("Here's where we go into a snappy gag!" says Curly), and an almost postmodern irony embodied by Healy himself. It's most apparent in Plane Nuts and Soup To Nuts that Healy represented a kind of interim figure between the audience and the stage (represented by the stooges); this is why Ted's "performing", ie: his singing or joke-telling, is constantly being depreciated within the act; it establishes that he's "seperate" from the clowning. He acts as a proxy for assumed audience opinion, criticising the stooges' routines ("Stop it with those jokes, would ya?"), the supreme criticism being the slap to the face. Ted was also the only member of his troupe to carry on a dialogue with the audience, sometimes legitimately a la Jolson, and sometimes as a part of the gag as his stooges were frequently audience plants. In films, this relationship between Ted and his stooges becomes cloudy (on film, the stage/audience divide is meaningless. Ted can longer occupy a space "between" the two). The stooge's traditional clowning, however, remains unscathed. This is one reason why there's such a divide between the Healy and stooge camps. When the act split, the Stooges parlayed their very traditional routines into decades of easily accessible shorts and features. Ted Healy, OTOH, had to regroup and retool his very unique brand of ironic comedy to film (frankly, I don't believe he entirely succeeded until his two WB features). The Healy v. Stooges feud is, in part, a battle between two very different forms of comedy (I enjoy both). It's funny that you mention Letterman as there's clear lineage from Healy through Milton Berle through Carson and just about every late night talk show host in business today.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous John Owen said...

"Well, we know that her off-kilter delivery is a calculated performance; her "straight" delivery, as seen in Beer and Pretzels, is hopeless."

So she's only an incompetent hack when she's trying to pick up her cues and maintain the rhythm of the routine. When she's intentionally dropping her cues and throwing everyone else off, she's a subversive genius. I guess our disagreement hinges on whether Bonnie is capable of such intentionality -- or, perhaps, whether Ted was genius enough to use her ineptitude that way, regardless of whether she was aware of HIS intentions. And it looks like I'm going to fall on the dully predictable side of that. Bonnie is simply awful.

I hope you get that Healy site back up soon, I'd love to see your theories worked out in more detail -- perhaps I'd agree if I could see this in context.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous John Larrabee said...

I guess I'm a minority of one in that I always found Bonnie hilarious. Like Catherine O'Hara doing an impression of Virginia O'Brien, if that makes sense. Yes, her dance routines in "Beer and Pretzels" and "Nertsery Rhymes" are bizarre, but they're clearly tongue-in-cheek (she takes a moment to scratch her head, for cryin' out loud!). She's not a no-talent, she's a lampoon of a no-talent.

I also can't fault her for her performance in "Hollywood on Parade" because everybody's awful in that short. There's a casual, ad-libbed, one-take-is-all-you-get feeling throughout the film, as there is in all the "Hollywood on Parade" shorts. (You want awkward timing and dropped lines? See the Bela Lugosi-"Betty Boop" routine in Episode B-8).

Maybe my read on her is entirely wrong, but I see everything she did as being calculated for effect. If audiences responded with "Is she serious or what?", that's just the reaction she wanted.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

A human Rorschach test, I tells ya! Having now seen Myrt and Marge, I'm firmly convinced that Bonnie was definitely working to achieve a particular effect with her off-kilter weirdness. Her "Dumb Dora" sequences are pretty damn funny and give Healy plenty of opportunities to react (the M.O. of any Healy stooge). Her unique song and dance stylings also make a return.. In context, it seems clear that both are part of the joke, and it's well in keeping with the Healy aesthetic; Bonnie is a lampoon of a showgirl in the same way that the stooges are lampoons of vaudeville comics. What hasn't worked in Bonnie's favor (or Ted's, for that matter) is that her humor plays against audience expectations to such an extent that the very essence of her act has become obscured as those expectations have shifted. The stooges have come out on top because their faux-vaude posturing can be just as easily read as legitimate (there's little irony to be found in their work at Columbia after the first two years), but Ted and Bonnie, milking laughs from strange reactions, bizarre dancing, and deliberately poor singing, are doomed to be misread by anyone expecting a more straightforward brand of comedy from their 30s comedians. As far as I'm concerned, Ted's glare into the camera at the end of Myrt and Marge is worth a billion pratfalls.

9:43 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

That glare you refer to is about my only memory of "Myrt & Marge." It struck me as alarmingly self-knowing, as if he's saying to us, "Can you believe the movie you just watched?" Maybe I've been too hard on Ted. I've read that he was really popular (with audiences and fellow actors) on Broadway; is he just too big for the little screen?

3:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have laughed at Bonnell, assuming that she was playing at being a limited hack. But she may hav e been a limited hack who was only adept when playhing a limited hack.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the "Broadway stooge" Mousie who said Bonnie Bonnell is a good dancer. I thought her dancing in "Beer and Pretzels" incorporated a lot of Harlem moves not typical for white dancers (the New York influence). As for Ted Healy, he is TERRIBLE in my opinion in "Beer and Pretzels". All his jokes fall totally, 100% flat...too subtle, too literary and vaudvillian for movies. Here in 2009, you see the emerging brilliance of Larry, Moe, and Curly, but Ted Healy...his presence and delivery SUCK the life out of the screen visual. The most lifeless, flat, too-nuanced delivery I ever saw. Reminds me of different small-time building contractors who get caught lying, stealing, cheating, or other crimes, "Now see here...blah blah blah.."

1:21 PM  

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