Canova, Judy (1916-1983)

views updated

Canova, Judy (1916-1983)

Comedienne Judy Canova was one of the hidden gems American popular culture, ignored by critics and overlooked by ratings systems that valued big city audiences yet beloved by audiences in smaller markets. As a musical comedienne whose lifelong comic persona was that of a yodeling country bumpkin, Judy Canova was famous on stage, screen, and radio throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but largely because of the perceived low status of her audience, her popularity has often been overlooked.

Judy Canova was born Juliette Canova on November 20, 1916, in Starke, Florida. Her career in show business began while she was still a teenager when she joined with her older brother and sister in a musical trio which played the club circuit in New York. In addition to belting out many of the same country songs she would perform for the rest of her life, Canova also developed her comic persona during this period as well—that of a good-natured, horse-faced, broadly grinning hillbilly whose lack of education and etiquette was transcended by boisterous good spirits, an apparent absence of pretense, and a naive humor with which her audience could both identify and feel superior to simultaneously. "I knew I would never be Clara Bow," she later recalled. "So I got smart and not only accepted my lack of glamour, but made the most of it." She usually wore her hair in pigtails, and soon began wearing the checkered blouses and loosely falling white socks which helped emphasize her almost cartoonlike appeal. The comic portrait was soon completed with the development of a repeated catchphrase ("You're telling I") and her use of what film historian Leonard Maltin has referred to as "an earsplitting yodel." With her character firmly in place by the early 1930s, it remained only for Canova to find the appropriate outlet for its display.

Canova's film career reached its high point in 1935 with her brief appearance in the Busby Berkeley-directed In Caliente, in which she performed what biographer James Robert Parish refers to as "her most memorable screen moment." In the middle of leading lady Winifred Shaw's serious performance of the soon-to-be popular "Lady in Red," Canova appeared in hillbilly garb and belted out a comic parody of the song in a performance singled out by audiences and reviewers alike as the highlight of the movie. This success fueled her stage career, leading to a notable appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, but Paramount's attempt to make her a major film star the following year (in Thrill of a Lifetime) didn't pan out, and Canova's movie career was shifted to the lower budget projects of Republic Studios. Here she starred in a series of consistently popular musical comedies (Scatterbrain (1940), Sis Hopkins (1941), and Joan of Ozark (1942) being among the most successful) in which she played her well-established "brassy country bumpkin with a heart of gold" in stories which enabled her to deliver a lot of bad puns and yodel songs while demonstrating both the comic naiveté and moral superiority of "the common people." Behind the scenes, however, Canova was anything but the untutored innocent she played onscreen, and she is important as one of the first female stars to demand and receive both a share of her film's profits and, later, producing rights through her own company.

While she was a minor star in the world of film, Canova was a major success in radio. Earlier performances on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Chase and Sanborn Hour (including a highly publicized "feud" in which Canova claimed that the dummy had broken up her "engagement" to Edgar) garnered such response that The Judy Canova Show was all but inevitable. Even in her own time, however, much of Canova's popularity was "hidden" by conventional standards, and it was not until 1945 when the new Hooper ratings system (which measured the listening habits of small-town and rural audiences for the first time) revealed that Canova's program was one of the top ten radio shows on the air. The Judy Canova Show remained popular until its demise in 1953, a casualty of the declining era of old-time radio. Radio allowed Judy to give full vent to the characteristics which had endeared her to her audience, playing a country bumpkin (with her own name) hailing from Unadella, Georgia, but making constant visits to the big city to visit her rich aunt, and passing a fastpaced series of corny jokes and songs with a series of stock characters. A typical episode would be certain to have Pedro the gardener (Mel Blanc) apologize to Judy "for talking in your face, senorita," Judy telling her aunt that she would be happy to sing "Faust" at the aunt's reception since she could sing "Faust or slow," and close with Judy's trademark farewell song, "Goodnight, Sweetheart."

After the end of her radio show, Canova continued her stage career (including a primary role in 1971's notable revival of the musical No, No Nanette), made a few forays into early television, and even attempted a more serious dramatic role in 1960's The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn. For the most part, however, she lived comfortably in retirement, often accompanied by her actress daughter Diana, product of her fourth marriage. The comic persona she created, and the ethic it expressed, remain popular today in sources as diverse as The Beverly Hillbillies and many of the characters played by the hugely successful Adam Sandler, both of whom owe a large if "hidden" debt to a horsefaced yodeler with falling socks who never let the city folk destroy her spirit.

—Kevin Lause

Further Reading:

Maltin, Leonard, editor. Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia. New York, Dutton, 1996.

Parish, James Robert. The Slapstick Queens. New York, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1973.

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard. The Funsters. New Rochelle, Arlington House, 1979.