Friday, November 25, 2005
Geoff Collins Salutes Arthur Askey, the Silly Little Man
"Walk this way" he says to the television cameraman on a live show from the BBC's White City studios in the 50s; and as the camera tracks him doing the exaggerated bow-legged walk of a cowboy who doesn't realise his horse is missing, he adds: "If I could walk this way I wouldn't need the talcum - I know the gag!" - cutting to the punchline of this very old joke without even bothering to put in the buildup. And all the time he's enjoying himself immensely. No stage fright - he never ever suffered with this dread affliction.
Bob Monkhouse (for whom Arthur was "an immediate lifetime hero"): "He made you realise the fact you were laughing at him was absurd. He was a silly little man, and we're all laughing and you're silly for laughing. And that was part of the double whammy that he used on an audience. So he got away with murder that way.... the great trick he had was: you do a joke, and the audience laughs - or doesn't laugh - and then you MOCK it. Constantly undermining what he was doing - but making it all the funnier."
Arthur Askey: "Now this is where the show picks up! No make-up - only Polyfilla!"
And, on another occasion, during a pantomime version of a Bud and Lou money-changing routine: "You may have seen this done before - but never better!"
September 30, 1939. World War 2 has just started. On BBC radio's Band Waggon, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey and Richard "Stinker" Murdoch are attempting to complete their National Registration forms, or as Arthur calls it "International Refrigeration". Arthur explains that he was named Arthur Mafeking Askey because he was born "on the day after the Battle of Trafalgar".
Not quite true. Arthur Bowden Askey was born on D-Day, although he didn't know it at the time - 'cos he was a baby: June 6, 1900, in Liverpool "the birthplace of so many great comedians" (I put that in inverted commas in case anyone thinks of Ken Dodd - don't get me started on him!!!). After years of concert party and seaside summer shows, along came Band Waggon in 1938 and suddenly Big-Hearted Arthur, this tiny red-headed man, was a huge star; and so was his straightman, tall, upper-class Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. No typical double-act aggression here; these fellows were obviously great pals, Arthur's schoolboy impudence well matched by Dickie's mild but totally false disapproval. Really "Stinker" is just as childish as "Big" - but he feels SOMEONE has to take charge; and their mutual affection is as genuine as Bud and Ches.
For your entertainment and approval, my all-time favourite Big and Stinker moment, from "The Proposal", a recording of a radio broadcast from "somewhere in France" and issued on His Master's Voice ( C 3173 ):
Arthur: Well, that's just it, old boy. I want to propose to the girl and I don't know how to go about it.
Dickie: Well, thank your lucky stars you've confided in me.
Arthur: Why ?
Dickie: Well, don't you know who I am ?
Arthur: I've got a rough idea - you're not the Ozzard of Wiz, are you?
Dickie: I'm Auntie Fanny of Muriel's Paper!!!
Arthur: Ooooohhh Auntie!!! (laughs) I've written to you SEVERAL times! Yes, never mind, I got rid of the blackheads! - I mean, I should worry! [to audience] Nice Tasty Comedeeee!!!
Disgusting - or hilarious? This is the whole point with Arthur Askey: you either love him, or you hate him. Indifference doesn't come into it. Or you haven't heard of him at all - which is why this blog exists, and why he's on it. A few years ago Pete Waterman, a devoted fan of Arthur's, bought up the video rights to all of Arthur's movies - so come on Pete, what have you done about it? The marketplace is hardly flooded with Arthur Askey DVDs. No wonder the poor little guy's obscure.
By the early 'forties Arthur and Dickie were well-established as movie stars. Arthur's "silly little songs" - "The Bee" being the immortal one - had featured in the Pathe newsreels for several years, but in 1939 came the film version of Band Waggon, followed by Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt and then, most notably, The Ghost Train, a remake of Arnold Ridley's..... Whoa, there, gentle reader. Enough! This is where we examine the whole point of Arthur Askey. We think he's funny, no question about that - but apart from (and sometimes even including) Stinker, everybody else in the film hates him and wants to kill him because he's so IRRITATING!!! In Arthur's defence it must be said that his adversaries are usually stuffy, pompous and entirely humourless; they deserve everything they get from him, the usual recipe being lots of childish gags, face-pulling, funny walks and an unsolicited song which is greeted with thinly-concealed fury, the total effect in this case being heightened by this movie's claustrophobic one-room set.
Maybe this has infected the opinions of the general public. As I said earlier, people who have heard of Arthur Askey either love him or hate him. This anomaly even extends to his fellow professionals.
Jimmy Grafton: "I remember trying to confine Arthur Askey in terms of sketches, and it was impossible because he was always playing to the camera."
Brian Tesler [television director]: "Arthur was a bit of a pain because... Arthur enjoying the effect of the ad-lib on, not just the audience of course but the studio crew, that Arthur was "over-running Arthur". I never did a show... it didn't matter how many minutes you reduced the material to, in order to allow "spread" for laughs, he still beat you. It was all fun, you know. There's a camera there, and there's a man operating it, and it was his aim in life to be funny about that camera, and about that cameraman, and at the end of a show if he hadn't got the cameraman creased once or twice, then he hadn't really succeeded."
Betty Driver detested Arthur; and she has written about the frustration of appearing with him in stage farces as he persistently ignored the "fourth wall" and addressed countless ad-libs at the audience. All of this is true. He does it in the films; he's never quite inside the movie, and seems to mock the idea of having to say the lines. Frankie Howerd does the same thing; and it's not to everyone's taste.
On the other hand, Arthur's daughter Anthea spoke of many occasions on which she was greeted with great warmth by stage doorkeepers: "Oh we loved your dad here - what a lovely man!" And Arthur was genuinely loved by many of his colleagues, including Cyril Fletcher who referred to him, bearing in mind that Arthur was born in 1900, as "The Turn of the Century". Val Doonican put it more simply: "He was lovely!"
As with all comedy, of course, it's a matter of taste. Aficionados of anything since the Goon Show may find Arthur old-fashioned and corny - and let's face it, those Band Waggon scripts are hardly great literature. Yet Arthur's generation - those to whom he was a cheerful little morale-booster - will find something like Monty Python entirely bleak and joyless, with no heart in it. Neither opinion is "the correct one"; and we could recycle this argument for any comedian you care to name. Arthur was very much of his time - but as late as the 1970s he was still around, as cheeky and irrepressible as ever, and at the very top of his form.
I saw Arthur at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in August 1970 (he announced one of his songs "I sang this in one of my classic British comedies" and then held his nostrils to signify "it stinks") and again at a radio recording of Does the Team Think? four years later. On both occasions he glowed, with warmth, good humour and the sheer joy of living. He was truly a National Treasure.
And you can still see him today wherever his movies are shown (are you reading this, Mr. Waterman?), or on www.britishpathe.com where he's one of the few comedians not unnerved by the lack of a studio audience. He just gets on with it.
Roy Hudd: "It was the blending of the words and the silly movements that went with it - that's what he was a genius at. You sense that Arthur made up these songs as he went along."
But he didn't. He did write some of them, but the majority were composed by Kenneth Blain - and is there any comedian in the world more obscure than Kenneth Blain? He might do the piano accompaniment for some of Arthur's Pathe clips, but apart from this he's completely vanished. Come on, readers, more information please. Kenneth Blain wrote lovely catchy little songs for Arthur, getting ruderies past the censor as in "Chirrup": ("a sort of come and kiss me Willie little bird, what lives up in theee skyeee"). Watch Arthur perform this on Pathe - it's mis-titled "A Pretty Bird" which is a different song altogether: he skips about like an English Eddie Cantor, full of confidence and optimism, the eternal cheeky schoolboy. Entering a bleak, clinical-looking TV studio in the movie of Band Waggon, he says gleefully "Ooohhh, it's the dentist's! Where do we spit?" No other line sums up Arthur Askey better than this.
And if you can't get to see Arthur on film, try, please try, to find a copy of his book Before Your Very Eyes. Like all the best biographies [can I get away with mentioning Cyril Fletcher again?] it's totally honest and you can hear the voice of the author as you read it. As Arthur says in his deliberately badly-spelled, scruffily-handwritten introduction:
UNLIKE MOST THREATICAL BIOGRAFFIES I ROTE THIS ORL BUY MISELF - NO "GOASTIN" OR "ASISTED BUY" RUBISH.
And he assures us:
URE IN FOUR A BLUDDY GUD REED.
So what do I think of Arthur Askey? Is it admiration or irritation?
You've probably worked it out by now. He was the best.
Arthur Bowden Askey. June 6 1900 - November 16 1982.
Goodbye Arthur. Ay Thang yow!!!
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Happy Turkey Day!
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
What's missing from this picture?
Friday, November 18, 2005
Alfie Dean in memoriam
Thursday, November 17, 2005
"Any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a Motion Picture is purely coincidental..."
One minor quibble. Personally, I think Olsen and Johnson's Universal features (at least the three I've seen) are far wilder and funnier than anything the extremely methodical Tex Avery ever made. If anything, their comedy bears a stronger resemblance to the anything-goes, emotionally frazzled cartoons Bob Clampett directed in the 40s. There may have been method to the madness, but the infectious abandon of Olsen and Johnson's comedy was heartfelt and real. Just ask any victim of one of their nearly-reflexive practical jokes. And Chic's manic giggle? That's just the way he laughed.
And here's the truth: Olsen and Johnson are hip, edgy, and dangerous. They should have made a hundred comedies.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Hellzapoppin' on DVD? When hell freezes over.
WHY THE HELL ISN'T THIS FILM MORE POPULAR, AND WHY ISN'T IT ON DVD, OR VIDEO, FOR THAT MATTER?
For those of you who're lining up to see Spamalot on Broadway, or even fans of the glorious grounbreaking Goon Show should get a look see at this movie type motion picture film and see where their inspiration could have come from. Hellzapoppin' is a breathless melange of insane movie trickery, fast paced gags upon gags, and more gags. Yes, Universal put a "story" in the film, but only begrudgingly, and to be honest, it works. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Comedy Teams, gives plenty of space to Hellzapoppin', but insists that it was a shame that Universal had to spoil the fun by injecting a typical romantic plot. I say HA! First of all, the romance is kind of fun because NOBODY takes it seriously, and if the film were only a copy of the Broadway version it would have become tiresome, and too pointless to sit still for. Even the craziest of the early Marx Brothers' films had a so called plot to hang the gags on. The gags in this film are so brilliantly layered. A gag that occurs early in the picture might not see it's punchline until near the end. The optical department must have worked nights on this film due to their glorious use of the medium itself. Ole and Chic have a running commentary with the projectionist (played by a very funny Shemp Howard) at the theatre where the film is playing. Unfortunately, Shemp is wooing plump theatre usherette, Jody Gilbert when he should be watching the film. This sets off a series of hysterical "film" gags that still amaze me with their cleverness.
Ole and Chic began as musicians in vaudeville playing straight jazz. Eventually they realized that comedy would get them better bookings, and before you could say "nepotism", they acquired a troupe of crazies (including a good deal of family) and toured with them across the country, and into Europe and beyond. This led to their Broadway smash, Hellzapoppin', which was basically a ritzed up version of the shows they'd been doing for years in the hinterlands. NYkers fell all over themselves to get tickets. Olsen and Johnson were now Broadway stars and could write their own ticket. They even became Broadway producers, hiring new team on the block, Abbott and Costello for the Bobby Clark starrer, Streets of Paris.
Olsen and Johnson made a few films before Hellzapoppin'. Warners was the first to sign them, although they really weren't sure how to use them. The best of their three features for Warners was Fifty Million Frenchmen, where they tangled briefly with a bearded Bela Lugosi. Five years later they showed up at Republic Studios, of all places, where they made one pleasant situational film, Country Gentlemen, and an almost precursor to their much zanier Universal films, All Over Town. When Republic didn't ask for any more films (and these were VERY low budget offerings), they went back on the road, and then on to Broadway history.
Universal called in 1941. They made Hellzapoppin' there, and then Crazy House, Ghost Catchers, and See My Lawyer, the weakest of the bunch. Crazy House has some hilarious gags (actually all the films do), especially in the first quarter of the film, and Ghost Catchers is a downright hoot. Unfortunately, the films were loaded to the breaking point with novelty acts (mostly musical numbers by long forgotten performers), which made them less appealing to the average young viewer. Let's face it, most of the kids I watched old comedies with couldn't take one or two of the musical numbers, must less 10! We wanted more Olsen and Johnson madness, and we didn't get it. Their film careers over, they did more Broadway, more touring, even a water show (Hellzasplashin'), and an ice show. They even tried TV with a summer replacement series, Fireball Fun For All. But their intricate gags, and prop laden schtick was too cumbersome for early live television and it came off as forced. These two funny men passed on in the early 60's within two years of each other. They are buried side by side in Las Vegas.
Regardless of their checkered cinematic past, Hellzapoppin' is a pip. It belongs right up on top of the classic comedy list, next to Duck Soup, and Million Dollar Legs. It's so ahead of it's time as be frightening at times. A friend of mine, upon seeing it for the first time asked, "Did Orson Welles see this? He must have loved it!". I totally understand what he meant. It's innovative the way Citizen Kane was innovative (there is even a nod to Rosebud...how hip is THAT?). Most of the gags performed in Hellzapoppin' had to be inspirations to the great animators of the golden era. I could only think, "Wow, this is crazier than anything Tex Avery did up to that time.". It's true. Avery HAD to have seen this movie.
And so should you. It's only around in bootleg copies, but that's better than no Hellzapoppin' at all.
Shame on Universal for not releasing this classic, and shame on the snooty film community for ignoring a film that is funnier than anything made today by a longshot.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
"Fiddle Faddle Foo"
And be sure to visit kiddierecords.com this week to download The Noisy Eater (week 46), a bizarre children’s record Jerry Lewis recorded for Capitol’s Bozo series. Lewis plays a kid whose parents throw him out of the house for being a sloppy at the dinner table (talk about your tough love). Cast out into the cruel world, Jerry only ends up offending other potential surrogate families with his poor table manners. Happily for Jerry, dinner with “a fat man and his skinny wife” (the Fat Man sounds a hell of a lot like Billy Bletcher), both cursed with table manners as poor as Jerry’s, convinces him to turn his life around and return home. His parents, either out of guilt or as a bribe, give Jerry five bucks, which of course in those days was like a million dollars. The Noisy Eater is one of four Bozo records featured this week, the others being Bugs Bunny and Aladdin’s Lamp (with Mel Blanc), Walt Disney’s Rob Roy, and a hilariously condensed version of George Pal’s Destination Moon (with June Foray, beyond a doubt). Kiddierecords.com is one of the internet’s true pop treasures, and some of the records they’ll be featuring in December look especially good; A Christmas Carol with Ronald Colman, Howdy Doody’s Christmas Party, and best of all, Pinky Lee Tells the Story of Inkas the Ramferinkas!
Monday, November 14, 2005
The Triumph of Buster Keaton
The release date has been moved ahead at least once, but Industrial Strength Keaton is supposed to be available in January, 2006. Personally, I can’t wait to finally see An Old Spanish Custom and The Triumph of Lester Snapwell.. and seeing Buster Keaton and Ed Wynn together on the same stage will probably make my head explode! I only wish Laughsmith could have thrown a few shorts from Buster’s series at Educational into the mix, but if there’s a market for Industrial Strength Keaton, it’s only a matter of time before someone releases that material as well.
Damn.. I love the cover, too! I CAN'T WAIT, I TELLS YA!!!!
The Playhouse (1921) B&W / Silent
* Audio commentary track
Digitally remastered and restored version of one of Keaton’s greatest shorts. New score from The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.
Character Studies (Mid-1920s) B&W
* Audio commentary track
Recently discovered short with famed magician Carter DeHaven and featuring cameos by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Jackie Coogan, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Rudolph Valentino.
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) B&W / sound feature
* Audio commentary track
* Keaton's Italian villa still gallery
Digitally remastered and restored feature. Definitive version.
Seein' Stars (1922) B&W / sound
The Voice of Hollywood #10 (1929) B&W / sound
Hollywood on Parade #A-6 (1933) B&W / sound
An Old Spanish Custom (1935) B&W / sound
* Audio commentary track
* Original press book
The Butcher Boy / Can of Molasses Sketch
* The Butcher Boy (1917) B&W / Silent clip w/ Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
* The Ed Wynn Show (1949) B&W / Sound w/ Ed Wynn
* You Asked For It (1957) B&W / Sound w/ Eddie Gribbon
* Unknown TV appearance (1950s) B&W / Sound w/ Billy Gilbert
"The Martha Raye Show" (1956) B&W / Sound
* The Concert
Buster Keaton and Martha Raye recreate a sketch originally used in the classic Charlie Chaplin feature Limelight.
"Circus Time" (1956)
Alka Seltzer (1958) [5 spots]
Northwest Orient Airlines (1958)
Simon Pure Beer (1958) [6 spots]
Shamrock Oil / Outtakes (1959)
* Audio commentary track
* Director’s interview track
Milky Way (1961)
Pure Oil (1965)
Country Club Malt Liquor (1958) [3 spots]
Ford Econoline (1963)
Jeep - Lessons in Living (1960)
* Only surviving complete Jeep commercial
* Recently discovered fragments from previously undocumented Jeep commercials.
Pure Oil (1965)
The Devil To Pay (1960) B&W / sound short
* Promotional booklet
The Homeowner (1961) - Color / sound short
* Audio commentary track
Recently discovered, previously undocumented Keaton industrial film.
The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (1963) Color short
1 Parlor, 5 Bedrooms and 6 Baths - A new mini-documentary from filmmaker Jack Dragga.
Commentary tracks from comedy historians Andy Coryell, Paul Gierucki, Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa and Richard M. Roberts.
Still galleries featuring previously unseen Keaton images, original press books, trade advertisements and more.
New music scores from composer Ben Model.
20 page full color booklet with detailed descriptions of each film, archival photos and essays from authors/historians Ken Gordon, Steve Massa, David B. Pearson, Patricia Eliot Tobias and more!
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Geoff Collins Salutes Cyril Fletcher, King of the "Odd Odes"
"Yerse...thanking yew! Cyril "Dreamin' of Theeee" Fletchahh he-ahhh! Odd Ode Number One Coming Up! [lapses momentarily into a strangulated mock-Cockney] Pin back your lug-'oles! This is the tale of Christine Crump, who thought her figure was too plump..."
(Don't expect the full accurate text of this - it was 46 years ago).
The point is: this was the first comedian I was ever exposed to and he scared the crap out of me! I was cowering behind the sofa in double-quick time. After Cyril, Doctor Who was nothing; the Daleks were easy-peasy. It took a long time for me to appreciate Cyril's drolleries. With the passage of time, I've managed to reject many of my childhood comedy heroes : Hope, Kaye, Lewis (eugh!), Wisdom (please!!!) - and I can re-assess Cyril in a new light; but not daylight, because to this day I'm convinced he was one of the Undead, which is why he always wore dark glasses on his gardening show - he didn't like to be out before nightfall.
Cyril's autobiography, "Nice One Cyril", is a wonderful book. In the preface he playfully laments the fact that he's not mentioned in Who's Who in the Theatre, or in anybody else's memoirs, and that he had to write his own story to prove to himself that he actually existed. Yet he was a star comedian from 1936 until the 1980s, and had a great renaissance on That's Life in the mid-1970s.
Resplendent in a dinner jacket and bow-tie, sitting comfortably in a purple leather armchair and reading "amusing" stuff sent in by the viewers, he wore a blackened toupee which came to a point in the middle of his forehead. By this time he'd developed a squint and had to wear a huge pair of spectacles which made his eyes look even bigger and scarier. All this gave him the appearance of an elderly vampire relaxing after a splendid lunch. On one occasion the toupee had slipped and was seriously off-centre, but he carried on, benign and oblivious. He probably terrified an entire new generation of children.
There was a brilliant parody of That's Life on Not the Nine O'Clock News - and this is really worth unearthing - in which Griff Rhys Jones-as-Cyril referred to himself (i.e. Cyril) as a "camp old twat".
Camp old twat, indeed. But there was always a bit more to Cyril Fletcher than this. His early work seems to employ the Healy-Fields-Max Wall audience alienation technique; he's quite bravely patronising and condescending ("D'you seee?"), daring the audience to laugh at this pompous toff in the lounge suit declaiming his inane Odd Odes. By the 1970s and That's Life he'd softened a bit and was a genuinely endearing and beloved Camp Old Twat - although I still wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night. He was always an original, a one-off, not like anybody else - and you can't have too many of those.
Can I bring in a personal note here and boast a bit? I actually saw Cyril in action (not during the daytime, obviously); a radio recording of Does the Team Think at the Playhouse Theatre, London, August 29, 1974 (broadcast about six months later - it seemed like forever - and I've still got the recording of it). I was eighteen then and didn't have to hide behind the seat when he appeared. Black-wigged Cyril seemed much younger than his three team-mates Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, and said a lot less, but "less is more" as we all know. Edwards in particular yapped on endlessly, boringly and filthily; in the broadcast version they cut most of it out.
By this time Cyril was a re-established star on That's Life and also had a daytime (unusual for a vampire) gardening show, Gardening Today, which he presented informatively but in his typically droll manner ("This is known as the dead wood stage!"). He died on January 2, 2005 and is survived by his wife and stage partner Betty Astell, an astonishingly beautiful woman. In fact one of the most delightful aspects of Cyril's book is his obvious devotion to Betty.
It's pleasant to report that Cyril and Betty's daughter Jill - who resembles Cyril in so many ways - carries on the show-business tradition, not the least of which is her incarnation as Bolly the Clown (details under www.its-behind-you.com, and in particular, www.1st-choice-entertainment.co.uk).
Cyril only appeared in three feature films, so there isn't much of his art about (several of his scenes as Mantalini in Alberto Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby (1947) were cut as the film was overlong and they didn't advance the plot) but he's worth a look on www.britishpathe.com - especially in The Careless Sneezer, which is like a tiny film noir, lit very dramatically with lots of shadows to utilise his spooky persona to maximum effect.
Now, we must ask the ultimate question: why do I find it necessary to write all this? Initially it's because Cyril was my First Comedian: and secondly because this blog is about comedians who have not received their full appraisal. Cyril was a star for fifty years on stage, screen and radio, but who's heard of him now? I have, and I'd like to share him with you.
One last thing: I work at one of the finest art galleries outside London (www.cecilhigginsartgallery.org) and one day I was discussing early television with one of the visitors, a charming lady in her fifties (this was in connection with our exhibition on 50s to 80s youth culture). I mentioned my scary first experience of Cyril Fletcher; she said that when she was a little girl she saw him as Mother Goose in a pantomime in Northampton. I asked "What was he like?" and she replied "He was terrifying!"
Cyril Trevellian Fletcher: June 25, 1913 - January 2, 2005.
Goodbye Cyril; and bless you.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Clark and McCulloughpalooza!
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Who Are Collinson and Dean?
Will Collinson, the team's straightman, was born William Valentine Malavoire in 1882. He toured Europe, Australia, and America, as a "sketch artiste", and was well-respected among performers as a dependable writer of comedy routines. It is evident from the routines available on British Pathe that Collinson also made good use of tried-and-true burlesque routines, presumably picked up on his American visits, and which were probably fresh to UK audiences in the 1920s and 30s. In 1925, Collinson met Alfie Dean and performed with him in a sketch he had written to entertain wounded soldiers. Alfie Dean, real name Alfred Corfield, was born March 7th, 1902 in London and had begun his stage career in 1915 as a member of Gerald Mount's Juveniles. A good foot-and-a-half shorter and seventeen years younger than Collinson, Dean provided the contrast that would form the basis of the team's stage and radio act. For most of their appearances over their thirteen years together, it was the generation gap (or the intelligence gap) that fueled their skits. Collinson's most popular stage persona was as a blustery and slightly doltish middle-aged patsy. Dean commonly played foil as a wisecracking and malicious schoolboy, quickly and deftly driving Collinson, the definition of an easy mark, up the wall with inane questions, one-liners and nonsequitirs. The comedy of Collinson and Dean stands in marked contrast to most of their UK contemporaries being built as it is on the kind of near-hostile give-and-take that was common in American double-acts, but was largely unknown in England at the time. Even British teams that adhered to a similar dynamic, such as Flanagan and Allen, handled their material and characterizations with a certain degree of affection. Collinson and Dean, however, thrive on barely motivated comic anger. Will Collinson's stuffy growling only serves to entice Alfie Dean to greater heights of gleeful mental torture, bordering on outright sadism. In that regard, he's very different from such comedians as Lou Costello and Bud Flanagan who plague their straightmen out of childlike ignorance rather than malice. Dean's meticulous and deliberate use of puns and conundrums as mental torture bears a stronger resemblance with the modus operandi of Groucho and Chico Marx, but even Chico's endless punning is motivated by his own brand of willful stupidity, not antagonism.
An immediate success in 1925, Collinson and Dean's partnership lasted thirteen years, reaching its peak in a 1933 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. They continued as a team until the outbreak of WWII when Dean entered the Army. Collinson continued the act with a new foil, Bobby Breen. In photos and footage, Breen appears to have been no taller than 4'9, giving his take on Dean's schoolboy role a certain verisimilitude. But the Collinson and Breen Pathetone clip available on britishpathe.co.uk reveals that Breen had little of Dean's sense of timing or playful tenacity. The pacing of the routine is subsequently slower and less appealing. Nonetheless, Collinson and Breen were successful on radio and the stage through 1948. By 1951, Breen was performing solo as evidenced by his appearance in E. J. Fancey's London Entertains (also featuring appearances by the Goons). Bill Collinson died in 1958 at the age of 76.
top: Collinson and Breen in one of their military sketches. bottom: trade ad from The Performer, June 13, 1946. Images (and commentary) courtesy of Geoff Collins
Saturday, November 05, 2005
Geoff Collins Reveals the Healy and Costello Story!
THREE stooges cost a lot of money though.... The thought crossed Ted's mind: why not a double act? So he sent a wire to Lou Costello.
They'd met, briefly, before, in '26 or '27 at the Hal Roach studio. Ted, already a star, was doing a guest bit in Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes; Lou was an extra, doing his best to get noticed (he's visible, mugging away expansively, in the front row of the boxing auditorium audience in The Battle of the Century) But whereas Ted subsequently found fame and fortune in Hollywood and the New York nightclubs, Lou had gone back to vaudeville and burlesque. But he was a funny little guy and he could take a slap.
The team clicked immediately and they soon built up an impressive range of routines, most notably "Who's the Daddy Bear ?" in which would-be nightclubber Ted impatiently tries to get "baby son" Lou to sleep by telling him the story of Goldilocks. However, the three bears are called Who, What, and I Don't Know, resulting in a very exasperated Ted and a much-slapped Lou.
Another celebrated routine, "What time Is It?" cast Ted as the merciless drill sergeant and Lou as the hapless buck private unable - and secretly unwilling - to follow the simplest instruction. This featured Ted's catchphrase "You belong in the INSANE asylum" and the revelation (an idea later recycled on the English radio Goon Show) that although Lou carries an armful of watches, he has the time written on a piece of paper.
Successful vaudeville tours were soon followed by guest appearances in Columbia features and a few surreal musical shorts for MGM which were in effect thinly disguised showcases for the dubious talents of Ted's girlfriends (Bonnie's in the Money) A contract with Universal in 1940 resulted in the team's first starring feature, Hey Teddy!. This was a remake of the horror classic The Old Dark House, with Ted and Lou as stranded travellers forced to spend the night in a spooky mansion populated by a family of homicidal maniacs. The head of the household, Saul Femm, was played with great relish by imported comic Cyril Fletcher, whom the boys had befriended on a British music hall tour the year before. Cyril was magnificently creepy in the role, and this led to a succession of similar butler-manservant parts in cheap horror-comedies for Monogram, and one co-starring role at PRC with Harry Langdon: The Odd Odor. But despite a splendid turn as Renfield in Healy and Costello Meet Dracula, he realised his movie career was going nowhere and he returned to English variety and television, where he terrified a whole new generation of children.
By this time, though, the H & C comedies, churned out at the rate of two or three a year, were becoming formulaic and Ted's drinking was beginning to affect his timing, although there were occasional high spots such as the reworking of the drill sequence in Lou's Your Buddy. Ted was also bitter that Lou had managed to reverse the original pay structure so that he now got 40% and Lou got 60%. This led to the inevitable acrimonious split, and Lou teamed up with vaudeville veteran Sidney Fields, who'd been struggling along in another double act with Bobby Barber. In order to placate Bobby, Lou kept him on as a sort of paid fall guy. Sid and Lou went on to become popular TV stars and eventually landed their own weekly series in which they played down-on-their luck vaudevillians trying to keep one step ahead of the landlord, who was played by another old pal, gravelly-voiced Bud Abbott. [I'll bet you thought he'd never arrive!]
In the meantime Ted, after his young wife virtually forced him into a lengthy drying-out session at the Keeley Institute, also went on to become one of the early stars of TV, taking over as MC on the Texaco Star Theater at very short notice. It has recently been suggested that the vicious brawl outside a New York nightclub, which resulted in the hospitalisation of host Milton Berle and the death of guest star Wallace Beery, was not the result of a random attack by students, but was planned and carried out by mobsters. Did Lou help his former partner back into the limelight? One of the retreating assassins was heard to yell "I'm a ba-aa-aad boy!"
Ted's career went from strength to strength; he appeared many times on Sid and Lou's show as Mike the Cop, never failing to give Lou a slap at every opportunity. Eventually he settled in as popular host of The Tonight Show.
Lou died in 1959, and a few years later Ted showed that all the old grievances were long forgotten when he presented an affectionate TV-movie tribute: Hey Fieldsie! Ted himself celebrated his golden wedding anniversary in May 1986 and died two months later at the age of 89.
But what became of Ted's original stooges? Apart from a few guest bits on children's TV shows such as Uncle Mousie's Nertsery Time, they were never heard of again.
It's a Classic Comedy "What If"/"What Is" Weekend
Pendelton and Healy
So, there you have it. We're left with only questions to accompany the reels of film. What if Healy hadn't died (as opposed to Pendelton, who only died in a movie)? Would there have been a series of B films starring this mondo obscuro pair? Would Columbia have picked them up for a shorts series? Perhaps Universal would have used them as comedy relief in the Richard Arlen action films, or Warners could have made them up in the Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins mold. Who knows?
Anyway you slice it it still comes up conjecture. They were two funny guys. I would have liked to have seen more of them.
Friday, November 04, 2005
Greetings Vintage Comedy Heads
I wanted to introduce myself as someone who's writings won't be so much about facts, dates, and figures as much as it'll be my musings on things like:
Healy and Pendelton, MGM's on and off comedy team.
Charlie Butterworth, sort of a Stan Laurel without the heart, and Ollie, of course.
What if Robert Woolsey had lived?
Anyway, you get the idea.
See you all soon!