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Time hasn't done its proper work. America's first female comedian has been plum forgotten. But now the story of Jackie "Moms" Mabley is being rescued from the ash heap of history, and last century's vangard entertainer may yet claim her rightful place in this century. Leading the rescue squad is Whoopi Goldberg, with her debut documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.
"She was the first to do what she did and she's gotten no recognition for it at all," Goldberg told Film Festival Traveler at New York's Apollo Theater, where the film was recently screened. "People don't remember her. So this is my reminder."
The film is refreshingly unabashed by its enthusiasm. "There's something about her that knocked me out as a kid," muses Goldberg on camera. Yet far from a mere valentine, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley also considers civil-rights history, the obstacles dogging women comics and Mabley's own ruffled past as a rape survivor.
The funny lady with the ratty housefrock and frumpy hat had a leg up to speak truth to power. Dubbed "Mr. Moms behind the scenes, she bent gender and wielded a virile force that ironically gave her a career advantage," the movie argues. Offstage there was something kingly about "the original queen of comedy," though her public persona was strictly straight.
Mabley's nervy allure takes Goldberg across issues of race, class and sexuality fueling her idol's five-decade career. With such routines as, "Mary had a little lamb -- wasn't the doctor surprised?!" Mabley's standup act brought a gleeful twang to risqué domestic material that few other entertainers of any ethnicity dared to touch. "Me and Nehru got in a big argument..." samples a more political sort of monologue which she increasingly braved. "It was about changing stuff," Goldberg remarked on the red carpet.
Born in the North Carolina mountains in 1897, Mabley hit black vaudeville's “chitlin’ circuit” during the segregated 1920s and crossed over to broader white audiences in the 1960s. By 1961 her star had sufficiently risen that she could vault the chasm from The Apollo in Harlem to Carnegie Hall on 57th Street. Mabley's 1967 appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” opens the documentary, which also features clips of her on such mainstream fare as “The Ed Sullivan Show” of 1969; “The Bill Cosby Show” of 1970; and the 1974 film Amazing Grace -- one year before her death at the age of 81.
Hands down, the most affecting scene in Goldberg's documentary shows Mabley singing “Abraham, Martin and John” on the variety show “Playboy After Dark.” As a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a guest at JFK's White House, Mabley was "crying for her nation and for her children" in this soulful lament that in turn jerks audience tears. Also on the televised set at the Playboy Mansion was Sammy Davis Jr., who comments that "Moms" was a "mom to every young performer." It's a sentiment that resonates with Goldberg, per her comment at the film's afterparty at Sylvia's. Before sitting down to savor the downhome spread, she noted her debt to the provocateuse who showed that a career in engagé comedy might be possible for her.
Yet the gag ceiling still exists, especially for women of color. How else to explain that the Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe lauriate has never hosted “Saturday Night Live”? And not for lack of trying, shared Tom Leonardis, who for nearly two decades has headed up Goldberg’s production company Whoop Inc. (and who executive produced the documentary).
Other celebrants at the Harlem event included Rain Pryor, Kathy Griffin, Dick Cavett, Jerry Stiller and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter. Together with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy -- who reveals that he ripped off Mabley's act for his character in The Nutty Professor -- they also serve as talking heads about Mabley and the hampered African-American beginnings in show business. Rounding out the film are audio recordings transcribed in jaunty animation as well as newly found archival stills and rediscovered performance footage.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley premieres November 18 on HBO. It began life as a stage piece. Said Goldberg, "Once I realized people didn't know about her, I decided to make a documentary. Silly me!"
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