"The Outrageous Sophie Tucker": A Film Review
“I believe in tit for tat, and if that’s the case someone owes me a lot of tat.” That quote begins this fast-paced, extremely well-researched documentary about Sophie Tucker, the bawdy singer/comedian known for being “the last of the red-hot mamas.” And thanks to the producing-writing team of Lloyd and Sue Ecker, a new generation of fans will be giving Sophie lots of “tat,” just as their parents and grandparents did during her career which lasted seven decades from the 1890s thru the 1960s.
The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Hartford, Connecticut, Sophie was bitten by the stage bug in her early teens and entered show business as a way to get out of the kitchen in the family-owned deli. As the film points out, Sophie was as adept at the “business” part of the entertainment world—promoting herself and supporting her family—as she was at the “show” part. “Always let them see you before they hear you,” she later said about her feather plumes, furs and sequined, spangled gowns.
The film opens as Sophie is starting her career in vaudeville, where she initially performed in black face. Short, overweight, with brassy blonde hair and a homely face, an early stage manager took a look at her and said, “black her up.” But at a Chicago theatre, Sophie conveniently forgot her make-up, went on stage with a naked face, and belted out songs with such a big, smoky voice that the audience forgot her appearance and fell in love with her singing and raunchy style.
Later during prohibition, many of the nightclubs were owned by gangsters so after performing, Sophie often played cards with Al Capone and other mobsters. Somewhat of a card shark herself, she frequently won. Always popular, even young J. Edgar Hoover was a friend. He reportedly asked for one of her gowns only to be told by Sophie that he wouldn’t fit into it.
With access to Sophie’s 400+ scrapbooks and interviews with relatives and celebrities who knew her, this lively, engaging film tries to be definitive about an entertainer who was the predecessor of comedian Moms Mabley, actress Mae West, and the inspiration for actress/singer/comedian Bette Midler. If it falls short at all, it’s when the filmmakers play coy. In one instance, they refer to one of her husbands, a womanizer, as “having troubles with his zipper.” Filmmakers also skirt the issue of Tucker’s possible bisexuality when pointing out that after her third marriage ended, Sophie was surrounded by women and kept intimate letters from at least one of them.
Part of the reason for this may be the unabated enthusiasm Lloyd and Susan Ecker have for their subject—and a desire not to offend any of Sophie’s remaining family. It’s rare for documentary filmmakers to insert themselves into the film they’re making, but the Eckers are such big fans of Sophie that they become talking heads themselves, and include many of Sophie’s relatives as part of their “extended family” in the closing credits.
Among the talking heads, Barbara Walters’ interview is the most revealing, since she hung around her father’s Latin Quarter nightclub in Miami and knew Sophie first-hand. Some of the other celebrities interviewed seem gratuitous—Tony Bennett may be singing now with Lady Gaga to stay au courant, but he never performed with Sophie, and the connection between the two is highly tenuous.
Using computer-generated techniques of animation, the film tries to insert some variety into the predictable archival footage/talking heads format of many documentaries, although clips of her performances are truly compelling. Computer colorization of black-and-white photos makes Sophie look almost glamorous.
What comes across most about this first popular female entertainer was her self-confidence and clear message that women—even fat ones!—enjoy sex as much as men. Sophie embraced her size and her sexuality with risqué lyrics, often accompanying her singing by running her hands suggestively over her body and casting seductive, sideways glances at her audiences. When she sang her signature “You’re gonna miss your red hot mama,” she wasn’t talking about maternal love. After viewing The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, you’ll see why she still burns bright and hot today.
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
Written and Produced by Susan and Lloyd Ecker
Directed by William Gazecki
Year of Release: 2014
Running time: 96 min.
Distributed by Menemsha Films
How to cite this page
Davis, Karen. ""The Outrageous Sophie Tucker": A Film Review ." 19 November 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 6, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/outrageous-sophie-tucker-film-review-0>.