- Reviewed by
Directed by William Gazecki
Distributed by Menemsha Films
“Tucker doesn’t follow men, men follow Tucker!!” exclaims the Last of The Red Hot Mamas as she appears on the Jimmy Durante TV show in 1951. She was larger than life; loud, fat, bawdy, and rude. She was one of the biggest entertainers ever in America. The name Sophie Tucker may not mean what it once did to American audiences, but this loving documentary about her life wants to change that.
The opening sequence tells you everything you need to know. Sophie Tucker knew seven presidents personally, was there at (and performed for) the invention of the phonograph, TV, radio and movies. She was a friend to both Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover (more about that later), and was so ingrained in popular culture that when the American public was polled in 1962 about what they thought of when they heard the name “Sophie,” over 95% said “Tucker.”
Fans-turned-producers Susan and Lloyd Eckerd obviously love their subject matter. They were introduced to Tucker’s career on their first date, when they went to see Bette Midler perform at Ithaca College (1973). In Midler’s stage act (written by Bruce Vilanch, who is interviewed in the film) she told outrageous Sophie Tucker stories and years later, the Eckards’ curiosity about Tucker led them into research that was a labor of love. The result is this film.
The pair’s enthusiasm gushes from every frame of this documentary, which can be a double-edged sword. Director William Gazecki’s choice to use the Eckerds on screen (way too much) to talk about Tucker’s life always seems a bit awkward, especially when we see a crying Lloyd Eckerd talking about [End Page 73] Tucker’s demise. While the producers both bring passion and interesting stories about Tucker’s life to the film, it can quickly become cloying. The poor lighting of these “interviews” doesn’t help, either. Gazecki would have made a more interesting film with more of the conventional interviews he already had, ranging from Barbara Walters (whose father, Lou Walters’ club, The Latin Quarter, was where Tucker hung out and played cards with the likes of Capone) to Tony Bennett (who talks lovingly about her vocal delivery) to comedian Shecky Greene (who delivers a very funny gravel-voiced impression of Tucker).
At the core of the film is a very basic rags-to-riches story about a Russian family that emigrated to Hartford, CT, and opened a kosher restaurant, and whose daughter, Sophie, eventually went on the vaudeville circuit to keep the money coming in for the family. But Sophie Tucker’s story is anything but basic, even for a show-business star. She had to overcome many obstacles on the road to success, leaving an Orthodox Jewish home to work as a single woman in a male-oriented business. She was not a beauty by show business standards and more or less made it on her own terms.
On her road to becoming a vaudeville star, Tucker sang in cafes and during reel changes at silent movie theaters. But she finally started making big money (enough to send home) as a “coonshouter” in vaudeville theaters. Thanks to her powerful voice, she was considered the greatest “coonshouter” ever, but she despised the “minstrel show” blackface and one day, as the story goes, she forgot her “makeup” kit and took the bold step of going onstage without the mask that blackface afforded. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tucker not only had a big voice and a big personality, she had quite a large physique, and she used that in her stage act, singing songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.” Her songs about weight, sex, love, food, being Jewish, and making money were as unique as her delivery and audiences loved her for it. As producer Susan Eckard says, Tucker was a huge star in her day, “as big as Elvis...