Red Hot Mama in Hollywood: Sophie Tucker and the Conversion to Motion Pictures

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:50 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lauren Sklaroff, University of South Carolina Columbia
By the 1930s, Sophie Tucker was one of America's most famous performers. A vaudeville staple since the 1910s, and a fixture in both American and British cabarets, Tucker had achieved considerable stardom as woman defying gender conventions. During the 1920s, as silent films came to the fore and more vaudeville entertainers became displaced by the new medium, many, like Tucker, lamented the loss of songs, comedy, and dance that could not be replicated onscreen. Although Tucker was featured in the Hollywood feature Honky Tonk (1929), she described it as a career low point and for years divorced herself from motion pictures. She, like many of her vaudeville compatriots, was committed to live performance and the connection she maintained with her legions of fans.

In 1937, Tucker agreed to return to Hollywood, and acted in two films, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry and Broadway Melody of 1938. While she served in supporting roles in these films, there was considerable press attention concerning her decision to appear in these films. Hollywood’s reliance on musicals, such as Broadway Melody, had grown as the medium expanded, evincing a considerable impact on both former vaudevillians and cinematic newcomers.

This paper will detail the larger discourse expressing the concerns of vaudevillians during the rise of Hollywood films, especially Tucker's role in bridging the transition from one medium to another during the 1930s. Films served as a way to preserve vaudevillian talent, while at the same time providing openings for new entertainers who had not gone through older, more traditional methods of achieving success in the business. As Tucker faced all of these conflicts, while trying to hold on to her personae as a “Red Hot Mama,” she is an important figure for understanding the eclipse of one of America’s greatest pastimes by another dominant form of entertainment.