Film Review: Wait for Your Laugh

The astonishingly long career of a true TV icon, blondined and black-bowed and a straight shooter if e’er there was one, is celebrated in this colorful bio-doc.
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One of the universally acknowledged great classic 1960s sitcoms was“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which the writing genius of the imperishable Carl Reiner first came into full flower. For a weird kid growing up in the sunbaked, jock paradise of Hawaii, it was a rare, enticing peek into the inner workings of showbiz, being a self-referential New York TV show about a New York TV show, with Van Dyke supporting his wife, an enchantingly dippy Mary Tyler Moore, and little son out in the suburbs by working in the city as a comedy writer for a producer played by Reiner. Also on his sublimely antic, ink-stained team of joke writers was a pair of solid pros, Buddy and Sally, played by Morey Amsterdam and the quite wonderful Rose Marie.

Although Rose Marie’s role on the show was a supporting one, and decidedly not the star spot, her career stretched back before anyone else involved with the program. She was a singing child star, born in 1923 in New York City and thrown into vaudeville before she was five, with a powerful, downright bizarre Sophie Tucker-ish Red Hot Mama voice and the knack of selling a song to the last row of the balcony.

Jason Wise’s awestruck, deeply loving doc Wait for Your Laugh is a portrait of the now 94-year-old veteran, still spry and full of ginger, who lives in Southern California and is still dying to work, if only show business weren’t such an abysmally and traditionally age-ist proposition, especially unfavorable to women of a certain stature.

Heavier now, but still blonde with that trademark black bow in her hair, she tells her story with salty, unaffected ease, and there is also some affectionate narration by her longtime friend Peter Marshall, on whose “Hollywood Squares” the star found gainful employment, post-Van Dyke for years. But for all her success, hers was never an easy road: Her manager dad was a jerk, bilking the top-billed Baby Rose Marie (who even made a film with W.C. Fields, International House, which oddly isn’t mentioned here) out of the considerable sums she earned touring the country and playing nearly every conceivable theatre. Even at the peak of her renown, as down-to-earth, warmly butch Sally, she had to contend with  the CBS star-making machinery which focused on piquant, petite Moore and her domestic crises, leaving much less air time for the old trouper to make the kind of impact she wanted to. Nevertheless, those years have a particular glow here, laced with marvelous, candid on-set color footage and the sharp recall of both Van Dyke and Reiner.

Her last big professional engagement was the show 4 Girls 4, in which she and three other great-dame entertainers, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Helen O’Connell, shared a hugely successful nostalgic act of song and reminiscence. This segment briefly kicks the film into juicy high gear, for the ladies were anything but completely amicable. Although the two Rosies got along like a house afire, being late-rising party girls who loved to stay up late, and Whiting was an essentially sweet, positive lady, O’Connell was a temperamental, obviously unhappy odd woman out, so difficult that even Whiting once said to an assistant that she’d like to grab her hands and hold them over a fire.

Rose Marie’s husky-voiced, forthright persona, especially as Sally, who never seemed to be able to meet the right guy, may have led many to believe that she swung Sapphically, but she actually found true love with a man, jazz trumpeter Bobby Guy, possessed of a stocky physique and smiling, cherubic face, who just got her. (Their daughter, Georgiana, appears in the doc.) Sadly, in 1964, at age 48, Guy contracted a rare blood disease and died, and the diva’s trademark brassy composure breaks down as she, who never remarried, recalls him. Even more poignant is her profuse apology for this show of emotion; then this ultimate survivor of a very tough world explains that keeping his memory with her always is the reason for that trademark bow. 

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