Miss Frozen Face
October 27, 2008 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Back in 1940, a young singer called Virginia O'Brien made her debut in the LA production of "Meet the People" when she was seized by a paralyzing case of stage fright. The policeman daughter nevertheless bravely kept on singing while the audience roared with laughter. Surprisingly, her frozen-faced delivery, far from cutting her career short, created a unique niche for her instead (her wide vocal range and stunning looks also helped). Within short, she'd be appearing as deadpan "featured singer" in a number of golden-age MGM comedies, such as the "In the Storehouse", "Panama Hattie", or, most memorably, "Du Barry was a Lady". It's a bit sad that such a singing and acting talent was reduced to a novelty act, but, damn, what an act!
posted by Skeptic (21 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Damn, the "Panama Hattie" link was supposed to lead here
posted by Skeptic at 12:45 PM on October 27, 2008

Weird, creepy, hilarious, enchanting all at the same time. I loved this.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:02 PM on October 27, 2008

So that's what Mortica did before meeting Gomez!

That "Du Barry Was A Lady" number is a gem. Why is it not more famous?
posted by The Whelk at 1:03 PM on October 27, 2008

Here she is singing perhaps the least effective lullaby ever in the otherwise unmemorable Marx Brothers film The Big Store.

She sure was...something.
posted by Bromius at 1:05 PM on October 27, 2008

I guess I should be worried that I've seen that very same expressive range on the faces of my sexual partners?

Nice post!
posted by maxwelton at 1:26 PM on October 27, 2008

Remarkably lifelike.
posted by rusty at 1:27 PM on October 27, 2008

What a thing that is!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:34 PM on October 27, 2008

Excellent! A long time favorite of mine, I even bought a copy of the otherwise ho-hum Du Barry was a Lady just to be able to see that number again. It's great to see the internets have started showing more of her work, a couple of years ago Salome was the only thing I could find.
I find the story of her discovery a little fishy though, she was too good a comedienne and too smart a singer for that to ring true to me. But who cares? Nothing wrong with a good Hollywood story. Thanks for the post!
posted by mr.grum at 1:37 PM on October 27, 2008

I love posts like this about forgotten but revealing little slices of pop culture. Not only had I never heard of her, I've now also heard "Did I Get Stinkin' At The Club Savoy" and its hilarious 1940s lyrics about getting blotto in a bar. It seems a shame her talent was contained in such a gimmicky way (obvious at the start of that clip), since it's obvious from the few emotive moves she's allowed that she could have totally wowed the camera. And what a voice!

Thanks, Skeptic, this is neat stuff.
posted by mediareport at 1:39 PM on October 27, 2008

In Ziegfeld Follies she smiles.
posted by robtf3 at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2008

There's more detail about her in this Guardian obit, including a slightly different take on the "Meet the People" story. Turns out she was married to the first Hollywood Superman and was related to Robert E. Lee.

Better still, she drops the deadpan thing to belt out a great "Bring on the Wonderful Men" in the 1946 Zeigfield Follies. I like this woman.
posted by mediareport at 2:12 PM on October 27, 2008

Another Virginia O'Brien fan over here. Nice post.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:07 PM on October 27, 2008

can't talk....Eraserhead flashback....Lady in the Radiator....on Youtube.....hizxct!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 4:43 PM on October 27, 2008

"no matter how you slice it boys it's still...Salome." I heard that line in a musical on TV when I was 6 years old. It may have been my first encounter with a pun. I've always wondered what movie it came from, and now, thanks to this fabulous post, I know.
posted by Morpeth at 5:12 PM on October 27, 2008

She was also in the mostly forgettable* Judy Garland vehicle The Harvey Girls. You'll have heard 'On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe' if you're a fan of Judy. My personal favorite song from that musical is "It's a Great Big World", in which O'Brien does a lovely job.

*the musical numbers are great. The story is not so great. skip to the musical numbers if you watch it.
posted by winna at 5:24 PM on October 27, 2008

The Dude Looks Like a Lady link isn't frozen faced...or does she shut it down later in the song?
posted by DU at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2008

Dead-pan or not. I'd rather see someone like her today more than most of these flavor of the month actors.
posted by doctorschlock at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

DAMN what a voice. Sigh. I miss the classics.
posted by davidmsc at 9:26 PM on October 27, 2008

*makes note to learn how to sing "no matter how you slice it.." because god I love puns*
posted by dabitch at 3:22 AM on October 28, 2008

In the future, nothing will be forgotten, out of print or obscure. With Youtube, DVD's and Bittorrent we will move from being a culture of the now, where anything older than six months or so gets forgotten, to something where the past hundred years of film, tv and music are instantly accessible and thus more relevant. Being a human, all of this stuff speaks to me - from the faces of 1904 Londoners, to performances by Virginia O'Brian and Anita O'Day.

This may seem trivial to someone in their 20's, but coming of age in the 80's, where you had live near a great college radio station, or revival movie house to have access to this stuff, I'm constantly amazed by how much of our cultural media heritage is just there for the browsing nd absorbing.
posted by jetsetsc at 3:34 PM on October 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Excellent. Thank you.
posted by the sobsister at 7:41 PM on October 28, 2008

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