I first experienced Rose Marie (b. 1923) when I stumbled upon the 1933 pre-Code film International House on TV back when I was a kid in the '70s.
Watching this cute little girl, whose career predates that of Shirley Temple (1928-2014), belting "My Bluebird's Singing the Blues" — not to mention suggestive elements like racy costumes and Cab Calloway (1907-1994) singing "Reefer Man" that gave the mish-mash a strange air of being both antique and cutting-edge — I felt I was receiving a broadcast from a time far giddier than the more recent, yet comparatively square, '40s and '50s films suggested.
I was riveted.
At some point, I became aware that the little girl from International House had grown up to be Sally Rogers on the sensational Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), and I could hardly believe they were the same person... not because they looked so different (who wouldn't look older 40 years after being 6?!), but because the idea that someone would have been a child star and continued working that long felt like an achievement to even me, a kid whose knowledge of showbiz came from Richard Lamparski (b. 1932) books and TV Guide synopses.
Now, Rose Marie is still around — and still available for work! — and her career officially stretches more than 90 years, one of the longest in showbiz history.
Thankfully, director Jason Wise came into her life to document that breathtaking journey, creating the emotionally expansive, technically superb and historically reverent documentary Wait for Your Laugh.
The title refers to Rose Marie's personal catchphrase, a truism she learned as a toddler working in vaudeville — respect your audience and don't rush. Laughter is precious and earning it takes effort, so when it comes, don't interfere. Timing is everything.
In Wise's film, Rosie Marie, 94, still has magic timing, punctuating her satisfyingly juicy, salty, surprising stories of the things she's seen with just the right amount of humor and forthright self-appreciation — she never comes off as someone who's patting herself on the back. She just knows she's good. She is a pro, she's been around the block (indeed, was there when they poured the cement) and she isn't going to sell herself short by wasting time on false modesty.
Somehow, she manages to remind us exactly how important she is without sounding like an egomaniac. All she has to do is lay out the facts for Wise's camera, and as she knows, the audience will have no choice but to agree that hers is a one-of-a-kind story.
Wise knew he wanted to shoot a documentary about a performer whose career spanned as many eras as possible, telling a talkback audence in NYC that he'd originally gone after Mickey Rooney (1920-2014). Lacking credibilty as a filmmaker, and approaching Rooney after the legend had begun having memory issues, he shelved that idea, reaching out to Rose Marie at the suggestion of her longtime publicist B Harlan Boll. Once Wise spoke with her, and after he determined her crazy stories were not so crazy, it was obvious that his movie had to be about this dynamo whose career had encompassed vaudeville, radio, film, TV, Broadway, Vegas and cabaret.
Well, there's nothing she hasn't done and done well.
Wait for Your Laugh begins by documenting its star's remarkable success as a little girl, when she would sing like a grownup so convincingly she had to embark on a tour of theaters to prove she was not a little person. The daughter of a low-level mobster who spent all of his daughter's money and who surrounded her with mobsters, including "Uncle Al" Capone, she always felt right on the stage, and only got better with time.
The film skillfully and briskly follows Baby Rose Marie into her teens, when she transitioned into Miss Rose Marie. By the time she was a young married singer — having eloped with trumpeter Bobby Guy (1916-1964) against her father's wishes (that's love, marrying a mobster's daughter in spite of his disapproval!) — she was experiencing the same heady success she had first found as a child, establishing herself as a beautifully dressed belter who was as comfortable cracking jokes onstage as she was serenading her audiences from it. She was a female stand-up pioneer who isn't thought of in that way because she did it in a cocktail dress in-between songs.
Among her many noteworthy career moves, she starred on Broadway in Top Banana (1951) with Phil Silvers (1911-1985), became TV's first female game show host, shot a pilot (that wasn't picked up) for a sitcom meant to replace I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and headlined the Flamingo in Las Vegas with Jimmy Durante (1893-1980). It is the latter that ushers in the film's most exciting sequence. Thanks to color home movies Rose Marie has had under wraps for decades, the film is able to document the infancy of Las Vegas, from when it had one taxi driver and was nothing more than a few roofs in the desert. She invented Vegas entertainment, and did it under the direction of Bugsy Siegel (1906-1947).
Next up, Rose Marie took on the role of prototypical feminist Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, a role the film stresses she adored but wanted to be bigger. Rose Marie's daughter notes her mom and Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) weren't "best buddies" on the set because, as Carl Reiner b. 1922) puts it, "You've both got great legs — but [the audience] wants to look at hers." Minus the usual staples of docs like alcoholism, career disintegration and/or drug abuse, Wait for Your Laugh instead explores tensions like the heavy lifting its subject had to do, creatively, to create the role of a working woman who was both one of the guys and cheerfully man-hungry, and fiercely, fiercely funny.
Again, Rose Marie's home movies are jaw-dropping, encapsulating wonderful moments from the set of this and many of her other projects, rare glimpses into early TV that simply don't exist elsewhere.
During the run of that classic sitcom, Rose Marie's husband, by all accounts a mensch who adored her, died of a mysterious blood infection. He was 48. She soldiered on, throwing herself into her work, which included 14 years (1965-1980) on The Hollywood Squares and a three-year stint on Doris Day's (b. 1922) eponymous series (1969-1971), commiserating with her fellow widow while making the world laugh and forever hiding their own troubles.
Always eager to work, Rose Marie was fortunate enough to become one of 4 Girls 4, earning a good living and traveling the world singing with three other great talents — Margaret Whiting (1924-2011), Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) and Helen O'Connell (1920-1993), the latter of whom is briefly the villain of the picture thanks to some hilariously bitchy moments relived.
After that ended, our heroine continued making TV guest appearances, right up to age 90. Now, captured in Wise's film watching herself in old footage in a screening room that calls to mind a famous scene from Sunset Boulevard (1950), she is nonetheless the furthest thing from Norma Desmond because while she has little respect for the singers of today, she's clearly never been about stardom and awards, and has always been about working hard and being the best.
In this clip, she sings, "I'm nearly 94" ... and she's now 94!
When Rose Marie was first offered The Dick Van Dyke Show, she claims she asked, "What's a Dick Van Dyke?" Plenty of young people would ask that today, not to mention, "What's a Rose Marie?"
As Wait for Your Laugh illustrates, a Rose Marie is a natural talent who never gives up, is nobody's fool and had no problem waiting 90-plus years for the totality of her legacy to be immortalized.
Wait for Your Laugh opens November 3. More showtimes here.
GR8ERDAYS RATING: **** out of ****
We had a blast at the November 1, 2017, screening of Wait for Your Laugh in NYC! Peter Marshall (b. 1926), who narrates and is an interview subject, TV legend Dick Cavett (b. 1936) and director Jason Wise chatted about the film and about Rose Marie's legacy... and there was ample time for some hilarious stories about Jack Benny (1894-1974) and Danny Kaye (1911-1987), not to mention ruminations about the state of entertainment today.
I was definitely feeling Wise when he talked about how younger generations are at risk of not knowing anything about icons like Rose Marie and others of her era.
Pretty Full Q&A:
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Another great column, MatthewR. Thanks!