Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' To Tell You (DVD Review)2 Jun, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Closer to an appreciation than an all-out documentary, Whoopi Goldberg’s portrait of a performer all but unique to her era (and actually, any era) makes the point that “Moms” (real name: Jackie) was unknown to much or even most of the white audience until TV appearances beginning in the late 1960s.
Though this is likely true, I was aware of her even as a kid because in perusing the entertainment-oriented tabloid included in my local Sunday paper, I’d see ads for her downtown appearances dating from the time I was eight or nine. And growing up in a WASP-y suburb where “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was all but taken as a documentary itself, her ad-artwork visage (loud dresses, tennis shoes — and though you couldn’t see this, no teeth) seemed as exotic to my very young self as the adjacent print ballyhoo for the Gayety burlesque house (“You never see any really good parts there,” confided my older cousin Phil Sr.).
Later, I came to learn that Mabley’s sometimes ribald LPs were the kind that more worldly parents owned but kept semi-locked-away in special cabinets, along with their Red Foxx counterparts or the suggestive Ruth Wallis 45s of the day (which stood out because their vinyl was red).
Thus, beyond its entertainment value, Goldberg’s directorial debut fills in some valuable history — though she herself concedes that a lot of facts about Mabley’s early period are unknown or at least vague. These would include some rough formative-years experiences even before she entered what used to be called the “chitlin’ circuit” to learn her craft in a career than spanned 1929 to 1975 and paved the way for other comics of both sexes (though, naturally, with a heavier emphasis on women).
Just to gauge how in-depth the storytelling would go here, I was curious to see if there’d be any screen time devoted to its subject’s lesbianism — though only because Donald Bogle’s essential biography of Dorothy Dandridge (with my favorite book jacket of all time) made mention that her actress-mother Ruby sternly warned gorgeous Dorothy and her sister to stay away from Mabley because she was known to be a predator. Goldberg’s treatment does offer a few instructive minutes and then goes forward to other matters — though, yes, some still photos of a near-unrecognizable Mabley are mighty masculine and point up that one of the trademark components of her act (trying to get younger men into the sack) was just that: part of the act.
You have to give Goldberg’s clout a lot of credit because she has managed to line up a huge array of knowledgeable commentators here: Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Stiller & Meara, Kathy Griffin and more. She even landed (for a couple bits, at least) frequent pain-in-the-behind Eddie Murphy — who, if I remember correctly, was the only “Saturday Night Live” cast member who didn’t take part in the marvelous SNL oral history that was published several years ago. Surprisingly to me, some of Mabley’s everyday-life humor so lauded by so many here comes off as obvious and not particularly stinging — yet later, when we hear Moms doing more political material during the civil rights movement, her approach and attitude still seem smack on the button in terms of potent effect. She also seems to have been a huge influence on Richard Pryor — though, to our great loss, he’s so longer here to attest to the fact.
Mabley eventually became accessible enough to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” though it figures that one of her preceding TV shots, which didn’t come until she was in her 60s, would come on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” back when the bro’s were giving exposure to a lot of great acts that TV tended to ignore (to the occasional grousing of political reactionaries who worked at the CBS affiliate that also employed me at the time). We get a lot of her TV material here, including what may be the documentary’s high point: her rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John.” It didn’t sell as well as the household-name hit version by Dion, but it did chart — making Moms the oldest person (75) to have recorded a top-40 hit. It’s so moving in the footage here (she sings it for Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner on a “Playboy After Dark” episode) that I immediately ordered it for my iPod.