Sophie Tucker was known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” but in reality, the vaudeville, theater, and recording star was one of contemporary pop music’s earliest foremothers. She was a direct influence on belters like Bette Midler and Mama Cass, and an indirect progenitor of the kid of provocative pop practiced by everyone from Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Madonna — the kind of musical practice that wows audiences with a mix of innuendo, verve, and ever-changing hairstyles and costumes.
A new film, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, opening on Friday in select theaters, takes a long and loving look at the life and career of the entertainer, who left her Connecticut home and Orthodox Jewish family behind to find bright lights in Manhattan. Like most stars, years of busking and striving for pennies eventually gave way to stardom, which gave way to superstardom. But Tucker was more than just plucky; she was downright trailblazing, as the film notes: “a Jewish woman, alone, in… a man’s world.”
We know the film, directed by William Gazecki and produced by Lloyd and Sue Ecker, is going to be full of juicy old-time gossip when one of the opening scenes takes place in a secret gambling club owned by Barbara Walters’ father, Lou. From there, it follows Tucker’s career through the years — and gives us a history of the entertainment industry and pop culture on the whole, from the unfortunate blackface era through jazz, vaudeville, and the golden age of Hollywood. Early scenes of Tucker performing alongside a very young Judy Garland — and snapshots of the two stars socializing and hanging out during their downtime — are not only evidence of Tucker’s influence, but incredible pop culture artifacts in and of themselves. Interviews with figures like Walters, Tony Bennett, and Carol Channing add to the whiff of glamour and grit.
Mostly, though, Tucker’s strength comes through in her combination of a big, fearless body and a big, fearless voice. She is described as “vivacious and sarcastic” — qualities that transmit loud and clear on the recordings of her interviews and performances that pepper the film.
As a performer, she was unabashedly sexual (although Barbara Walters, one of the many famous interviews, acknowledges she’d be tame by today’s standards), but in a particularly female-centric way. She crooned less about pleasing or courtship than about frank desire. Her roving eye for men was a subject of humorous banter onstage, and she made a joke about her school for red-hot mamas, which would leave its attendees schooled in the art of lovemaking and ready to get out there and catch a man.
Tucker also joked about her size, sometimes singing that “nobody loves a fat girl,” but then turning around and saying that bigger girls do it better and have more to love. Whichever way she used her appearance as a subject of her art, she was anything but retiring about it, or interested in being anything else. “A steak a day keeps the doctor away,” she joked. Tucker became a pioneering brand spokeswoman, using her image and name used to sell “misses” clothing.
Like today’s pop stars, her famous sequined dresses, hats, and ever-changing bouffant hairdos won over audiences — and caught the eye of none other than famous crossdresser J. Edgar Hoover. (His requesting her dress is one of the many historical tidbits that make the movie worth watching.) Her hairdos were known as “towering sugarloaves” or “six-pound scalps” — and she had a signature handkerchief that accompanied her many outfit changes.
Details in The Outrageous Sophie Tucker that feel smaller but just as relevant involve the star’s relationship with her audience. Tucker kept up a regular correspondence with her admirers, fashioning a fandom out of pen and ink. She kept in close touch with friends she made on the road, and inspired so much devotion in her fanbase that one Jewish soldier took her record with him overseas. When he died, his buddies blared Tucker singing her signature song “My Yiddishe Mama” from the Brandenburg gate after the fall of Berlin, an ironic moment after her work had been banned by Nazi Germany.
Tucker feels in some ways bizarrely anomalous for the times she lived in. Though she faced censorship and labels like “outrageous” or “provocative,” she flourished in the mainstream. Perhaps this was because what Walter calls her “grandmotherly” image justified her subject matter: “Out of this grandmotherly woman came these very bawdy, risqué, off-color songs.” Or perhaps her success can be attributed to the same reason she was embraced by many of the leaders of the mob — she filled seats. She was, as one commentator says, a human cash machine.
Tucker was also a woman with demons — a wayward son, a series of failed marriages, and a series of intense long-term (and interracial) female friendships that The Outrageous Sophie Tucker portrays in a very ambiguous light. If only we knew a little bit more about these stories. The film is at least 20 minutes too long, and perhaps too tender towards Tucker, but it sheds incredible light on its subject and the times she lived in — as well as what it took to make it in showbiz long before the Internet. The film’s biggest utility, perhaps, is that it will inevitably send viewers on a hunt for clips of Tucker’s biggest songs and performances so we can experience more of her charisma ourselves.