There are some things in classic films that make you wonder why that was ever considered entertaining. Early on one of those things for me was Charlotte Greenwood. This sounds like a pretty rude way to introduce this post but I know I’m not the only one who considered her an oddity. Her big solo numbers were all the same, Charlotte would sing and kick but it wasn’t any ordinary kick, these were high kicks. They seemed so weird but then I remembered this woman was displaying incredible athleticism and she was a woman! Women were supposed to be prim and proper in 1940’s but Charlotte teared down that notion. Charlotte could lift a leg above her head at a 90-degree angle to her body and she wasn’t very young either. She was doing this in her 50’s! It’s incredible.
Charlotte Greenwood first caught my eye in the Betty Grable musical, Down Argentine Way. She played a lot of the same roles in these FOX musicals but she did them all so well. The characters she played are hilarious! With her deadpan sense of humor, she always had the best, witty line in a scene but she could also be loyal and maternal to Grable, Alice Faye, basically any of the FOX beauties of the 1940’s portraying their aunts, close friends, chaperones or even mothers. Then, of course, she’d have her own solo number where she showed off her voice and high kicks. But Charlotte’s characters weren’t shrews either. Charlotte Greenwood is quite the feminist. In her films, she may be a chaperone or an aunt but she had always had a love interest. Life didn’t end at 50 for Charlotte Greenwood. She essentially began a new life in Technicolor. Her characters were active, independent and carefree. One of my favorite Charlotte Greenwood numbers is in ‘Springtime in the Rockies.’ In her solo number, her character Phoebe is left alone at a fancy party. To cope with this feeling of isolation, she gets drunk and does her signature high-kick dance in front of a crowd. It’s a sort of musical number within a nightclub where the fourth wall is torn and we, as an audience, realize it was an act. What I love about it is that it defies the notion of what we expect a woman in her fifties to be.
Charlotte had a long career but is mostly remembered for her work in FOX’s wartime musicals. She got her start in vaudeville at the turn on the century. She gained attention with her show ‘So Long, Letty’ in 1916. That established the Letty character, a wise-cracking gal who chases men but also has a good heart. At 5’10, she used her stature to her advantage with her signature routine earning her the nickname “Lady Longlegs.” A string of Letty stageshows followed on Broadway and then she would then in silent films. Her popularity was so big that she was invited to breakfast at the White House.
She would take her talents overseas to London where she enjoyed a successful career onstage and in film. When she returned to Hollywood, a whole new audience discovered Charlotte in a string of FOX films. She would appear in some of the eras biggest hits: Springtime in the Rockies, The Gang’s All Here, and Moon Over Miami among others. She would eventually retire in 1956 when she went out with a bang. She would portray Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, a role many consider to be her finest hour. It’s in this film you get the famous high kicks but you also get a deeply nuanced performance showcasing Charlotte as a great dramatic actress. It’s a perfect ending to a long, eclectic career.
Charlotte Greenwood may have had me scratching my head when I first discovered her but I was no doubt intrigued by this long legged woman. She was a truly unique talent, a one-of-a-kind that we will probably never see again. What made Charlotte such a hit was she was herself. From her brash personality in her film roles to her bravery in her musical numbers, she taught us that we should stick to our guns and not be afraid to show a little leg.
This post was a contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club.