Movie Review: ‘The Outrageous Sophie Tucker’ Documentary

Sophie Tucker in a still from "The Outrageous Sophie Tucker"
Sophie Tucker in a still from “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is a wonderful documentary celebrating “the last of the red hot mamas.” Directed by William Gazecki, it’s the brainchild of producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who are apparently nothing short of obsessed with Sophie. I can’t say I blame them.

To call Sophie a trailblazer would be a gross understatement. She stood up for Josephine Baker. She was a marketing genius who embraced publicity and had endorsement deals before it was commonplace.

Like the black female blues singers of the time, Sophie was perhaps the first white woman to sing songs and tell jokes of a sexual nature. But she was never the victim. She was the one in the relationship calling the shots. One of her lines was, “Tucker doesn’t follow men. Men follow tucker!”

Sophie Tucker in a still from "The Outrageous Sophie Tucker"
Sophie Tucker in a still from “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”

A contemporary of Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Sophie (1887-1966) was the biggest female star for many years. She lived through 11 presidents’ administrations and knew 7 of them personally. She was a personal friend of celebrities, politicians, and gangsters alike, including Ed Sullivan, Al Capone, and J. Edgar Hoover. She claimed that Hoover requested to borrow one of her dresses.

During her long career, she conquered vaudeville, phonograph recordings, radio, movies, and television. She made the first female talkie film in 1929, “Honky Tonk,” which she called a “stinkeroo.” Other than an appearance in the film “Gay Love” in 1934, it took 9 years for Sophie to finally find another script that she liked. But her role kept getting smaller, as it was rewritten and rewritten.

Judy Garland was brought into the film, and even though Sophie loved Judy, the script completely changed from its original incarnation. As a result, Sophie was ultimately disappointed with “Broadway Melody of 1938.”

Sophie made her television debut on Jimmy Durante’s variety show in the early 1950’s. Many people forget what a great singer she was. In the film, Tony Bennett calls her the “most underrated jazz singer who ever lived.”

The incomparable Sophie Tucker at a book signing.
The incomparable Sophie Tucker at a book signing.

Others interviewed in the documentary include Barbara Walters, Michael Feinstein, Carol Channing, the producers, and some of Sophie’s surviving relatives. Her nieces and nephews speak of her fondly and recount the many times they played poker with her. She would always win (rumor is she cheated), and they were always required to bet. Then, even if the kids lost just $1.50 to Sophie, they were expected to pay up.

She had bad luck with husbands, though, who were sometimes referred to as “Mr. Sophie Tucker.” And she consistently had to bail her son out of scrapes. There’s a fascinating story about Sophie and a soldier during World War II, but I won’t spoil it for you. See the movie! It’s a delight from start to finish.

People seemed to dearly love this woman who was a character and a half. It really made me wish I could have met her, but we’ll all have to settle for this chronicle of her life with lots of great archival footage.

The film opens in select theaters Friday, July 24, 2015. Watch for it!

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