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The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker


Starring Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Michael Feinstein, Shecky Greene, Bruce Vilanch, Lloyd Ecker, Susan Ecker, Paul Anka, Kay Ballard, Chubby Checker, Don Dellair, Joe Franklin, Brenda Lee, Tony Martin, Mickey Rooney, Connie Stevens, Mamie Van Doren and archival footage of Sophie Tucker, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, John F. Kennedy, Judy Garland, J. Edgar Hoover, Al Capone and Ted Shapiro.

Narrated by David Hyde-Pierce.

Directed by William Gazecki.

Distributed by Menemsha Films.  96 minutes.  Not Rated.

Fame is so fleeting, and over generations even the most accomplished artists are generally forgotten.  I’ve vaguely heard the name of Sophie Tucker over the years, but I can’t really say that I knew anything about the actress and singer.

However, for my grandfather’s generation, Tucker was a huge celebrity.  Breaking out of Broadway and Yiddish Theater, Tucker was one of the first women to break through as a triple threat, a groundbreaking jazz singer, an actress and a comic personality.  She was brave enough to sing songs which were rather scandalous (well, at least for back then, in today’s world they seem rather mild) about sex and relationships.

Her looks and size (she was a proudly plus-sized woman and not exactly what most people would call beautiful) did not interfere with her becoming something of a sex symbol, one of the biggest pin-ups during World War II.  Her ribald and lively delivery inspired future artists as diverse as Mae West, Bette Midler (who idolized her) and Lady Gaga.

She was good friends with and contemporaries with everyone from Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Tony Bennett and Jimmy Durante.  She was friends with several US Presidents, to the point that she could call John F. Kennedy on a whim and he’d take her call.  She was one of the most prolific product pitch-people of her time.  She was a tireless self-marketer, writing her biography and selling it at her own shows, taking the names and addresses of her audience and handwriting them notes.

And yet, like I said, I’d barely even heard of her.  Perhaps this is because she died when I was merely three years old, but many of her contemporaries have stayed in sight of pop culture long after they moved on.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows her to have been a fascinating, principled, smart and funny woman.  The film is full of intriguing photographs and footage, though an-often used technique of moving still photos like a puppet against a still background was always annoying, cheesy and distracting.

The film is a little stingy about personal information about Tucker.  They sort of gloss over her relationship with her family when she left her son to go seek fame.  In her Orthodox Jewish background, this type of behavior would be cause for her to be cut off from her family, but that never totally happened and the film does not exactly explain why.  A later relationship she has with a female friend is teased as perhaps being a lesbian affair, but the filmmakers never feel comfortable enough with their research to either commit to the fact or deny it.

Some of the stories are not even exactly about Tucker, per se.  A touching story of American World War II soldiers fulfilling a dead compatriot’s dying wish by playing Tucker’s song “My Yiddishe Momme” in the liberated streets of Nazi Germany as the Allies marched in really had little to do with Tucker herself, beyond the fact that the dead soldier was a big fan.

However, the film showed the interesting dichotomies of a woman who broke many glass ceilings despite having to put up with much that she did not want to – particularly an early phase in her career when she was forced to perform in blackface – just to get noticed.  The Outrageous Sophie Tucker showed a consummate show-woman and a brilliant, principled businesswoman (she never had one contract in her career – her word was her bond).

And while it would have been nice to have a bit more footage of its subject (it also made me really want to track down her autobiography), The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is an intriguing introduction to an eccentric talent which has sadly been mostly forgotten.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: July 24, 2015.

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