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The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

A legendary name in 20th century show business, Sophie Tucker is ripe for rediscovery, and this labor-of-love documentary will serve as a useful primer for anyone unfamiliar with her. A trailblazing performer who wasn’t beautiful or glamorous, she succeeded through the power of personality—and often risqué material. I remember watching her on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was young and wondering what the fuss was all about. Ed touted the stout, brassy entertainer as a legend and I was obliged to accept what he said even if I didn’t understand why.

Having acquired Tucker’s voluminous scrapbooks and having sought out surviving family and friends, Susan and Lloyd Ecker are committed to spreading the gospel of Sophie, like longtime admirer Bette Midler (who revels in telling bawdy stories about Tucker that may or may not be true). Personal photos, recordings, film and television appearances, newspaper clippings, and the like enable them and filmmaker William Gazecki to trace their indomitable subject’s life and career from the early days of vaudeville through the television era. Her fans included U.S. presidents and members of England’s royal family as well as ordinary folks.

Tucker’s take-no-prisoners approach to her career is vividly recalled by people who knew her like Barbara Walters, whose father Lou was a noted nightclub owner, and Tony Bennett, who worked on the same bill as Sophie when he was starting out. The always-eloquent Michael Feinstein talks about Tucker’s vocal savvy. She had promotional smarts, to boot: the woman known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” maintained personal correspondence with fans so they’d be sure to come and see her when she played in their cities. She spent so many years selling copies of her autobiography after her performance that it is virtually impossible to find an unsigned copy!

Sophie Tucker at Book Signing

Image Courtesy of the Sophie Tucker Project and Menemsha Films

Given the vast source material, I wish I came away with a better sense of Tucker’s particular appeal. It’s always more effective to show than to tell. I also find it frustrating that The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shoehorns a formidable array of “sound bites” by well-known show-business colleagues into a fast-paced collage during the closing credits. Was there really no other way to make use of these interviews? (There is also no mention of Steve Allen’s musical stage play about her life, a pet project of his that he nurtured for years.)

On the whole, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker does what it sets out to do  and show-biz buffs will certainly have a good time. I just wish it were a more inspired and fully realized portrait.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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