The recent death of fabled French star Danielle Darrieux at age 100 prompted speculation that she might have sustained the longest career in showbiz. However, still-alive-and-kicking Rose Marie has the edge — though retired (most reluctantly) at a mere 94 years, she started nine full decades earlier, racking up a career that encompassed practically every popular performance medium in the U.S. As lively and likable as its subject, Jason Wise’s documentary “Wait for Your Laugh” pays fond tribute to a tireless trooper whom generations have known mostly as a wisecracking second banana often funnier than the bigger stars she supported. It should draw out patrons “of a certain age” who likely haven’t journeyed to the multiplex for some while.
Wheelchair-bound now, Rose Marie’s mind remains sharp as a tack, and she happily walks us through one hell of a professional resume. Born Rose Marie Mazetta in 1923 Manhattan, she was taken to shows from an early age by her fun-loving mother, and her extraordinarily precocious imitations of their stars (particularly Sophie Tucker) led to an amateur talent contest win at age 4. Soon she was signed by NBC — radio’s first nationwide broadcaster — then put on the vaudeville circuit to “prove I was a child” with a uniquely “adult voice,” rather than an adult pretending to be a tot. Her hugely popular act not-infrequently ran afoul of child labor laws, which her father handled, not out of benevolence, but because she was that “mean man’s” meal ticket. She was also his illegitimate child, and he apparently reserved any kindler parental motivations for his “legitimate” other family.
Fame as “Baby Rose Marie” continued for some years, furthered by appearances in several short subjects and the 1933 W.C. Fields classic “International House.” Unlike most child stars, she had little trouble transitioning past that role, re-inventing herself as a successful nightclub singer once she’d matured enough in her teens to assume an adult persona. When her stature had risen enough that she needed a longer act as headliner, she began adding comedy bits, which came so naturally she was soon regarded primarily as a comedienne. That knack got her to Broadway in the hit musical “Top Banana” with Phil Silvers. She was greatly disappointed when all her numbers were cut from the subsequent 1954 film version (purportedly because she refused a producer’s advances). This somewhat soured her on the big screen, where she made relatively few appearances over the ensuing decades.
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But the new medium of television would prove her most enduring showcase. After a slew of guest appearances (and recurring roles on “The Bob Cummings Show” and “My Sister Eileen,” neither noted here), she became part of the golden ensemble on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” joining its star and Morey Amsterdam as staff writers on a fictitious show-within-the-show. Chemistry was ideal off-screen as on; all concerned were “devastated” when creator Carl Reiner decided to pull the plug five years in, before the still-popular series got stale. She had another harmonious working experience on the shorter-lived “Doris Day Show,” and as a quipping panelist for nearly the entire run of syndicated gameshow “The Hollywood Squares.” Otherwise, it was back to guest spots, increasingly cornered into the usual sour niche Hollywood reserves for aging funny ladies: Combative mothers-in-law, grouchy-old-battle-ax neighbors and other harridans.
Not that she complained much. Though hardly a pushover (“You don’t want to cross Rose Marie. She’ll cut your head off,” “Squares” host Peter Marshall says), known to agitate for better (and more) material, she was a driven workaholic who could barely stand to be between gigs. Nonetheless, she found time to raise a daughter with big-band trumpeter Bobby Guy — a true love match that ended with his death from a mysterious blood infection at age 48. She never remarried, always performing with a black mourning bow in her hair.
In 1977, she had a surprise triumph with the revue “4 Girls 4,” co-starring fellow singing “old broads” Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney and Helen O’Connell (who reportedly drove the others nuts). It toured for years. While physical infirmities have prevented her from working since a last voice credit on the “Garfield” cartoon series four years ago, it’s clear here she’s still acutely frustrated by retirement.
The role of Sally on “Dick Van Dyke” was ideal for a performer of the old school who was indeed “one of the boys,” accustomed to making her voice loudly heard in male-dominated environs. Given the major creative input others testify to her having on that show and on “4 Girls,” it’s perhaps curious she never pursued directing or writing credits — though given her love of the spotlight, working behind the scenes may have had little appeal.
Still brash and confident, Rose Marie has plenty of colorful anecdotes, including her many brushes with mob legends like Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, who were closely tied to showbiz. “They were absolutely wonderful to me,” she says, as were the likes of Jerry Lewis and Johnny Carson, who were particularly supportive as she faced widowhood. One gets the sense these sentiments are very much heartfelt; she either avoids more barbed comments on less-congenial colleagues, or they didn’t make the final cut of this docu. It’s too bad, however, that in his otherwise judicious decision to limit the number of interviewees here, Wise didn’t find room for one more: the recently deceased Mary Tyler Moore, with whom Rose Marie had a purportedly tense relationship because she’d been told “The Dick Van Dyke Show” would be primarily an office comedy, only to see the main focus drift toward domestic antics featuring MTM’s daffy spouse.
Another modest letdown lies in the vintage clips utilized, which presumably for budgetary reasons are very brief, often limited to visuals without sound (or vice versa), and sometimes subbed by amateur behind-the-scenes footage. We don’t really see Rose Marie strut her stuff at length until the closing credits, when a late-1950s-looking TV appearance shows her bantering with the band while singing an Italian novelty ditty.
That aside, the editorial package is brisk and bright, with Marshall plugging some gaps in the talking-heads chronicle as an occasional narrator.