Classic Film Guide

Cameo Performances (movies that were loaded)

There was a time when (and a reason for) Hollywood's studios made movies that were stuffed with countless performances - or frequently just appearances - by film and/or stage actors, comedians, singers, and other personalities. While the formula was used to sell tickets (and sometimes war bonds), the resulting movies are largely curios that captured the spirit of their times which serve to introduce or remind us of some lost or forgotten talents and stars.

Not to be confused with dramas (etc.) that include more than a handful of recognizable actors like 12 Angry Men (1957), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Ship of Fools (1965), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Airport (1970) - and all the other (special effects laden) disaster movies that followed it, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) or even That’s Entertainment! (1974) - and its sequels, these star-studded musicals, comedies, and revues are held together with paper thin, nonsensical or just passable plots that serve to connect their different acts:

The Goldwyn Follies (1938) - at 2 hours, it’s one of the shortest movies in the bunch; a Musical that has the fewest credited and least recognizable performers in its cast. It was producer Sam Goldywn’s attempt to recreate the kind of revue that made showman Florenz Ziegfeld famous, but it failed to attract an audience and lost money. It features a Ben Hecht script that actually pokes fun at the legendary producer: the story involves a film producer (Adolphe Menjou) that falls in love with someone who's unaware of his affections. Goldwyn himself was infatuated to the point of obsession with one of the film's leading performers - Vera Zorina, unbeknownst (only) to the ballerina, according to A. Scott Berg's excellent biography about the producer. As for the rest of the film, unless you love ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, or even more improbably the Ritz Brothers (Al, Harry, Jimmy) and their antics, you're unlikely to enjoy much of this movie; both acts are used as filler between the main plot and its musical performances which include Zorina's stunning Water-nymph ballet (it begins with her rising out of a pool of water and ends with her disappearing down into it). Kenny Baker's radio performance of the Academy Award nominated Gershwin brothers song ("It's very clear, our love is here to stay") is also memorable, as is its (early) Technicolor presentation, Richard Day’s Art Direction and Alfred Newman’s Score (both of whom received Oscar nominations).

Stage Door Canteen (1943) - 2h, 12m - this World War II era musical features a fictional lightweight romantic story about a soldier who visits one of the real USO-like dance halls (labeled canteens) that were staffed by stars from Broadway and/or Hollywood to make our servicemen and women feel special during their leaves. Written by Delmer Daves and directed by Frank Borzage, it received Oscar nominations for its Score and one of its songs, "We Mustn't Say Goodbye" (though "Good Night Sweetheart", which plays at the end of every night, is much more memorable!). The story involves several soldiers from the same company, who've yet to see action, that stop in New York on their way overseas. They are fortunate to receive three consecutive 24 hour leaves during which several interweaving stories play out against a backdrop of performances and appearances by stage and film actors. What makes this one unique are the Broadway stars that appear, some in their first and only movies. Among the most memorable are Ray Bolger’s song & dance, Gypsy Rose Lee performing a striptease, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne doing dishes and serving sandwiches, and Katharine Hepburn's "keep your chin up" and "do your job" bit at the end.

Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) - 2h, 7m - this Warner Bros. product is another example of the wartime movies produced that allowed soldiers overseas to see their favorite stars in locations where a movie projector could be set-up but a (e.g. Bob Hope) USO-tour could not. Entertaining fluff for the home-front as well, directed by David Butler and featuring a full slate of the studio's stars and more. The razor thin story - scripted by Melvin Frank, James Kern, & Norman Panama - is about an undiscovered singing talent (played by Dennis Morgan) who's hoping for a chance to sing at a "Cavalcade of Stars" charity event produced by Edward Everett Horton’s and S.Z. Sakall’s characters. The producers are "trapped" into letting ham Eddie Cantor (as himself) be their show's chairman because they want Dinah Shore to sing in the show; Cantor also plays Joe Simpson, a bespeckled dramatic actor whose career is cursed because he looks so much like the highly recognizable comedian. As a friend of Morgan’s, Simpson and a wannabe (but awful) songwriter, played by Joan Leslie, try to help the singer get discovered. The film’s Oscar nominated song - "They're Either Too Young or Old" - is performed by Bette Davis. Besides songs sung by Shore, some other highlights include a song & dance routine by Jack Carson and Alan Hale and a comedy gig performed by Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and George Tobias.

Hollywood Canteen (1944) - 2h, 4m - this one was not only written by Daves, but directed by him as well; it received Oscar nominations for the original song "Sweet Dreams Sweetheart", its Score and Sound. The story, which revolves around the real titled nightclub that was a refuge for soldiers on leave during World War II, is about a soldier (played by Robert Hutton) who gets to meet and be kissed by his favorite starlit (Leslie again) at the establishment. Because he’s also the one millionth soldier to walk through its doors, he gets a dream date with the starlit of his choosing (guess who?). John Garfield and Bette Davis, who opened the actual canteen, are the host and hostess among the many other stars included, from Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, the Andrews Sisters and Roy Rogers with Trigger, to a Jack Benny-Joseph Szigeti violin duel.

Ziegfeld Follies (1946) - 1h, 50m - released after World War II (an appropriate bookend to the Goldwyn musical that began this article), this MGM production featured a plethora of its stars putting on a revue similar to those that the legendary showman (Flo Ziegfeld) used to do; it won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Musical Comedy award for that year. The most memorable bits involve the pairing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, pool bound Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, and pink clad Lucille Ball on a white horse.

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After World War II, to compete with the ever encroaching inroads made by television producers, the movie studios responded by making bigger and longer films which included the development of widescreen technologies like Cinerama, CinemaScope, Vistavision, and Todd-AO etc. and stuffing these productions with more and more recognizable actors, actresses, comedians, and personalities. Ironically, the man who’s been credited with inventing the cameo performance produced only one film, and it went on to win five Oscars including the Best Picture Academy Award that year:

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) - 2 h, 47 m - The only film that producer Michael Todd made was the second (after Oklahoma! (1955)) to use the widescreen (and sound) technique that he and the American Optical Company developed - and dubbed Todd-AO - to deliver Cinerama capability "from a single hole". Using Jules Verne's novel about modern transportation and the resultant "shrinking globe", James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman won an Oscar for their adapted screenplay. In addition to winning Best Picture, the comedy adventure won three other Oscars and was nominated for three more, including for its director Michael Anderson (his only nomination from the Academy). David Niven plays the adventurous perfectionist Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas plays his newly hired, multi-talented and resourceful manservant Passepartout. British gentleman Fogg bets fellow members of his club (Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, and Trevor Howard) that he can circle the globe in 80 days. Robert Newton is Mr. Fix, who knows nothing of the bet but is intent on catching and/or stopping Fogg because he believes that the adventurer is a thief. Shirley MacLaine plays a princess from India - that Fogg and Passepartout rescue from death - who travels with them for most of their trip. Among those that Todd was able to convince to appear in the film were Sir John Gielgud as a manservant, Charles Boyer as a travel agent, Jose Greco as a flamenco dancer (now there’s a stretch), Cesar Romero as MacLaine’s would-be executioner, Alan Mowbray as a government official, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Melville Cooper, Reginald Denny, Ronald Colman as a railway official, Charles Coburn as a steamship clerk, Peter Lorre as a steward, George Raft as a saloon bouncer, Red Skelton as a drunk that enjoys the saloon’s free food with Cantinflas, Marlene Dietrich as the saloon’s hostess that Raft loves to protect, John Carradine as a blowhard Kentucky Colonel, Frank Sinatra as the saloon’s pianist, Buster Keaton as a train conductor, Joe E. Brown as the station master, Andy Devine, Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie as shipmates, John Mills as a carriage driver, Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold as sporting ladies, and Edward R. Murrow as himself.

Pepe (1960) - 2h, 38m to 3h, 15m - Produced and directed by George Sidney, who was never recognized by the Academy despite his portfolio of films which air frequently on TCM, it features Cantinflas in the title role; the film opens in his native country (Mexico). Pepe is a horse trainer who’s formed such a bond with a prized stallion named Don Juan that he tries to discourage some American investors (including Greer Garson and Edward G. Robinson as themselves) from buying it at auction. But a washed up and usually drunken Hollywood producer, Ted Holt played by Dan Dailey, succeeds where the others fail because he needs the horse for a movie that he hopes to make in order to restore his reputation in tinsel town. Pepe follows his "son" Don Juan to Hollywood where he is "hired" (for room and board) by Holt to keep the horse’s spirits up for the breeding fees which pay their bills. Shirley Jones plays a beatnik (!) singer-actress that Pepe/Holt convince/need to star in their picture. Pepe is the film’s producer because he’d used his lucky ear (don’t ask) to win the needed funding at the Sands casino, ostensibly owned by the original Brat Pack (who appear) in Las Vegas. Robinson figures in the plot again, later in the film. Other significant cameo appearances include: Maurice Chevalier as an advisor about affairs with women, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis (though he’s uncredited) in a mistaken identity sequence, Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot (1959) drag, Kim Novak as an anonymous benefactor in a jewelry store, Donna Reed, Billie Burke, Charles Coburn, and William Demarest as the studio’s gate man.

How the West Was Won (1962) - 2h, 42m - far different from the cameo extravaganzas listed so far, this glorious epic purports to tell the titled story in three parts. But while there are certainly many famous actors and actresses involved, most have leading roles in at least one of the stories, and Debbie Reynolds appears in all three. Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and others, it won Oscars for its editing, sound and writing, and was nominated for five others including Best Picture, cinematography and score (which is #25 on AFI’s Top 25 Film Scores list). Spencer Tracy provides the narration and among the others that appear are: Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne as General William Tecumseh Sherman, Richard Widmark, Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln (of course), Agnes Moorehead, Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan as General Ulysses S. Grant, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy, Russ Tamblyn, and Harry Dean Stanton & Lee Van Cleef (uncredited). The movie was added to the National Film Registry in 1997.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) - 2h, 32m to 3h, 12m - perhaps the last of the movies that were intentionally loaded with cameo appearances, this comedy features virtually every funny man or woman from the classic era and more. Stanley Kramer’s movie won a Best Sound Effects Oscar and received nominations for its Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Score, and its Original (title) Song. The story begins when several motorists (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, & Phil Silvers) hear the dying words of a man (Jimmy Durante) who's buried some money in a California park. This sparks a cross country madcap race between these competing parties; unlikely alliances are formed during their greedy quest for the riches, which ensnares a retiring burned out police captain (Spencer Tracy). Ethel Merman plays Berle’s MIL from hell, Dorothy Provine plays his wife and Dick Shawn plays Merman’s playboy son; Edie Adams plays Caesar’s wife. Others that become involved include: Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Jim Backus, and Peter Falk. Also in the cast: Joe E. Brown, Alan Carney (without Wally Brown, who died in 1961), William Demarest, Andy Devine, Norman Fell, Paul Ford, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Marvin Kaplan, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Charles Lane, Mike Mazurki, Charles McGraw, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Jesse White and The Three Stooges. Among those appearing uncredited are: Jack Benny, Howard Da Silva, Allen Jenkins, Tom Kennedy, Jerry Lewis.

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The following movies really aren’t cameo extravaganzas at all, just long movies with more than a handful of recognizable stars, but I thought that I’d include them anyway:

The Great Race (1965) - 2h, 30m - This Blake Edwards-Arthur Ross gem opens like a cartoon serial - with Tony Curtis as a white clad adventurer dubbed The Great Leslie in a Road Runner-like role and all-in-black Jack Lemmon - assisted by Peter Falk as Max - is the jealous Professor Fate playing the Wile E. Coyote - and ends with a Prisoner of Zenda send-up - with Lemmon in the title/dual role and Curtis as the hero that battles Ross Martin (and George Macready) to save his mechanic (Keenan Wynn) and the emancipated suffragette reporter that Natalie Wood plays. In between is a delightfully entertaining story wrapped around a fictional early twentieth century automobile rally from New York to Paris that features elaborate set pieces, including an iceberg used to cross the Pacific (one wonders what the plan would have been if not for this accident), and incorporates countless sight gags - like a grand pie fight - from the kind of comedies that Laurel and Hardy (to whom the film is dedicated) made. This comedy won an Academy Award for its special sound effects, was nominated for Russell Harlan’s lavish color cinematography, editing by Ralph Winters, sound, and its original song "The Sweetheart Tree" performed by Wood (dubbed by Jackie Ward), though Dorothy Provine’s "He Shouldn't A Hadn't A Oughtn't A Swang on Me" is much more memorable. Arthur O’Connell plays Wood’s reluctant publisher while Vivian Vance plays his pre-Nineteenth Amendment activist wife; Marvin Kaplan plays O’Connell’s hapless assistant. Larry Storch and Denver Pyle are among those who appear in the obligatory Wild West (complete with barroom brawl) sequence.

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Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (1965) - 2 h, 18m - beget a spin-off: Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) aka Monte Carlo or Bust. Directed and written (with Jack Davies) by Ken Annakin, it’s a comedy adventure that’s both inferior and not as well known as The Great Race (1965) even though it was released weeks earlier. The setup is similar only it involves early twentieth century airplanes in lieu of automobiles, and the race is shorter - from London to Paris - and more direct (west to east versus the car rally’s long way around). Its cast includes Stuart Whitman as the American entrant, who competes with the British flyer James Fox for his fiancee’s (Sarah Miles) attention, Robert Morley as the race’s financier (and Miles’s father), Gert Frobe as the German participant, Irina Demick (the French underground bicycle girl from The Longest Day (1962)) as six different beauties, Terry-Thomas as the wicked Britisher who tries to beat the others by cheating (sabotaging their aircraft), Benny Hill as a fire chief, Flora Robson as the Mother Superior of a convent where one plane crash lands, and Gordon Jackson. Red Skelton appears in the opening and closing sequences as everything from a Neanderthal to the early flight pioneers. The film’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

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© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog

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