A longish, dense biography of Bert Lahr, collected through interviews and personal reminiscences by John Lahr, Bert Lahr’s son. The biography doesn’t seem that long, but it’s 350 pages, and it’s pretty packed in a dense way with details of Bert Lahr’s childhood and long career in burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway, and cinema. The information sometimes is a little dry, and occasionally impersonal at times. The full knowledge that John Lahr is Bert Lahr’s son comes up very rarely in the first 2/3s of the book — with an occasional reference to “dad”, but then comes full circle at the end with a chapter about Bert Lahr as a father.
Personally, I, like a lot of people, only know Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, a limitation I think I can be forgiven, given the title of this book. I think I knew that at least one famous cartoon was based on him, but I couldn’t remember who. Turns out, obvious to most of you, that it was Snagglepuss. This presents a funny lacuna in my childhood. Between Snagglepuss, The Mad Hatter, Fred Flintstone, Huckleberry Hound, and a few others, I knew these very famous impressions and characters, but didn’t know much about the world of references they’re drawing from. It’s a very false kind of simulacra of ignorance on my part. So yes, I knew Ed Wynn was the voice of The Mad Hatter, but I didn’t know that Ed Wynne was super famous prior to this casting, and this was a way of getting a star in that role. Same goes with the three stars of The Wizard of Oz. It’s more clear now obviously, but there wasn’t a whole lot of available information when these connections were being formed in my brain.
So that’s what this book does so well, fills in a huge gap, not only for the life of Bert Lahr, but also for a lot of early Hollywood, 20s and 30s Broadway etc. Lahr apparently hated doing films. Or maybe more fair, loved doing stage work in comparison. Early in my reading of the book, I thought: wait, was Bert Lahr in that final moment of Some Like it Hot? I looked it up and no, it’s another well-known actor named Joe E Brown. Well, a few chapters after chasing down this idea, I read that Lahr turned down a role in a film, and they cast Joe E Brown instead. This performance felt like a rip-off of Lahr’s comedic stylings, enough that Lahr wrote an open letter to Hollywood press. So his annoyance in general made sense. One of the other things that becomes clear in two later chapters is that he clearly felt himself to be a craftsman. He spent weeks developing roles with writers and directors in order to finely hone the character before the performance. So it makes sense that Hollywood of the 30s-60s just really wouldn’t let him do this.
This becomes most obvious when Lahr is cast to open the American production of Waiting for Godot alongside Tom Ewell (the errant husband of The Seven Year Itch) initially, and then EG Marshall ultimately. This was a hugely challenging role for anyone, especially given the play was brand new to productions, that Beckett was a little bit of a nobody still, and it was as reviled then as it would become loved (in small circles) much later. The work he put into it comes through in the book as deeply rewarding, not thinking of himself as a serious, theater actor (in this way).
The ending chapters lead toward the role of Bert Lahr as father (with one more side venture into a failed Broadway modernization of Ben Johnson’s Volpone, which was a commercial failure, but Lahr did win a Tony, which was written by a blacklisted writer). He was an old man dad, almost fifty when his first kid was born, and so the last chapters have that bittersweet sentiment throughout.
Here’s a commercial he did:
The picture attached, from the original cover, is a production still from Waiting for Godot.