If you don’t know much about Sophie Tucker — who was like Bessie Smith crossed with your Jewish bubbe — this entertaining if rudimentary documentary is required viewing. Tucker (1887-1966), nicknamed the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, was a household name for nearly six decades in show business. A true original, she deserves a place in the pop-culture pantheon.
Director William Gazecki follows a traditional rags-to-riches formula, but there was nothing traditional about Tucker, whose family emigrated from Russia and opened a kosher restaurant in Hartford. Tucker hit the vaudeville circuit to help support the family. She had a great voice, but her unconventional appearance put her into the racist “coon shouter” slot in music hall shows and necessitated that she perform, reluctantly, in blackface, a common practice at the time. Tucker moved to New York and got her big break with the Ziegfeld Follies. By 1929, she was the biggest female star in the world.
Producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker became fascinated with Tucker after seeing Bette Midler in a 1973 concert perform Tucker’s bawdy jokes at the urging of Midler’s writer, Bruce Vilanch, who appears in the film. The couple spent eight years compiling material from the 400 scrapbooks kept by Tucker, an obsessive archivist of her own life. (Brandeis University holds volumes from 1957 to 1965.) The Eckers, who’ve also written a book about Tucker, appear in the film as talking heads a bit too much. Better to hear from Tucker’s show biz cronies, who offer lively and revealing anecdotes: among them, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, and Shecky Greene. Greene does a funny impersonation of the throaty-voiced Tucker chastising her ne’er-do-well son, Bert. Barbara Walters discusses her father’s long and loyal relationship with Tucker, a regular performer (and card sharp) at Lou Walters’s Latin Quarter nightclub, in Boston.
The film’s treasure trove of images, film clips, and anecdotes makes for fascinating show business history. Bennett and Michael Feinstein smartly explain Tucker’s gifts for jazz singing; coupled with her ribald persona, she was closer to African-American blues singers such as Smith. No-nonsense and big-hearted, she palled around with gangsters, chewed out presidents, and stood up to the KKK when it threatened a Miami nightclub that had booked Josephine Baker. The most fascinating sections of the documentary focus on how Tucker’s flamboyance and solid business acumen vaulted her to unlikely international stardom, keeping her there for decades. Here was a proudly Jewish woman who sang racy songs about sex and was defiantly large, even turning her size into a signature song (“Nobody Loves a Fat Girl”).
There are other gems: One of Tucker’s great-nephews recounts Tucker’s friendship with J. Edgar Hoover and his partner Clyde Tolson and the night Hoover asked Tucker if he could borrow one of her spangled gowns.
Tucker’s scrapbooks were filled with letters; from US presidents to the many women who were her constant “companions” after her third marriage ended. A soldier during World War II wrote to tell her that his platoon blasted one of Tucker’s most famous recordings, “My Yiddishe Momme,” from speakers over the rubble of Berlin for eight straight hours. “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is rich with such tall tales and juicy nuggets, befitting a larger-than-life icon.