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The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

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!

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.

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