Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Geoff Collins Takes a Belt in the Back

I just had a quick look at that big fat lump of an MGM biopic The Great Ziegfeld which has recently become available on DVD here. It had to be a quick look, as I couldn't afford to take three days off work to watch all of it. Several things stood out, the most notable being: thank God for the fast-forward button. But it seems odd to me that the real Fanny Brice, a genuine Ziegfeld star in a rare movie appearance, has both her musical numbers annoyingly curtailed and interrupted by dialogue; while a fake Eddie Cantor does a complete, uninterrupted turn. This is great news for fans of faux-Cantor Buddy Doyle, who does a very good job, but why isn't the real Cantor in the movie? After all, it's an affectionate tribute to his much-loved former employer. Two possible reasons: (a) he couldn't do it as he was contractually tied to Sam Goldwyn; or (b) he asked MGM for too much money, so they told him to go away and replaced him with a lookalike.

Why do I suspect the latter to be the case? Am I just an old cynic?

I recently unearthed (in Newport Pagnell, in England!) a copy of the May 11, 1949 Variety. Have a look at the following article, and see if you reach the same conclusions.

click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image

Cantor did indeed perform the skit with Louis Sorin in Glorifying the American Girl. It's still there, in the movie, and a bit of it can be glimpsed in Michael Kantor's Broadway - the American Musical, episode 2. It has the feel of a classic routine, and in the hands of Cantor (much more New York Jewish than usual) and Sorin, it's very funny. But who wrote it?

As much as I love Eddie Cantor, I just don't believe his version. Look what Lew Earn hearned for the routine: a couple of thousand dollars here and there, maybe a bit more from Ken Murray. What did Cantor get? $20,000 in one go, for doing the sketch in the movie, plus all the other payments earlier in the 20s.

It's a well-documented fact that Lou Costello crammed as many old burlesque/vaudeville routines as he possibly could into the Abbott and Costello TV show - which he owned - in order to gain ownership of all the old routines as well. We can't really complain about this; in doing so, he preserved the material. But was Cantor doing this as well? He didn't need the money; he must have been financially well ahead of Lew Hearn, who's now a totally obscure name (the archaeologists amongst you can find a silent clip of him on the Pathe website). Sorry Eddie, this wasn't your finest hour; you got the $20,000 and you're still prepared to sacrifice a friendship to get a bit more. You're a ba-aa-aad boy!

On this same subject, let's go back a few years, to London, 1943, and the first film appearance of the non-classic Northern double-act whose names are always spelled incorrectly: the correct spelling - and please, all of you, never get it wrong again - is JIMMY JEWEL and BEN WARRISS. The film, which, incidentally, gives Jimmy's name in the credits as "Jimmie Jewell", is Rhythm Serenade, a vehicle for whiny Forces' Favourite Vera Lynn, a popular singer of the time who appears, whether we want her to or not, in every 40s compilation going, and who reminds elderly Brits of the dark days of World War Two - mainly because her voice sounds like an Air Raid siren. She couldn't act either - I mean she really couldn't - and in the film the poor girl is woodenly pushed around from one inept dramatic situation to the next, with occasional "comic" relief from Jewel and Warriss. And what do they do ?

Jimmy says he doesn't like mustard (he pronounces it "moostered") and Ben browbeats him with a long tirade about little girls, thirteen, fourteen years old, slaving away day and night to "manufacture moostered". Sounds familiar? Didn't Bud and Lou do this same routine in One Night in the Tropics - and on their TV show? Elsewhere in Rhythm Serenade, Jimmy and Ben do a variation on Clayton, Jackson and Durante's "Wood Wood Wood"; and they were also famous for a Blackpool summer show "waterproof watch" routine (to prove its efficiency, pushy salesman Ben submerges would-be customer Jimmy in a huge glass water tank). Very amusing, but just a minute - didn't Milton Berle do this in Always Leave Them Laughing? And didn't Sid Caesar - and later Bert Lahr - do this on Broadway in Make Mine Manhattan? Poor Bert; he was always being ripped off. Most of the sketches in Always Leave Them Laughing were originally his (all he gets to do is a brief version of his old cop routine, and he lights up the entire film) and Berle also lifted his stock market sketch in New Faces of 1937. The list is endless.

The Pathe website [oh no! I mentioned it again] has examples of the excellent British double-act Collinson and Dean performing routines associated with Bud and Lou - but ten years earlier. They do a version of "7 x 13=28"; and there's another routine in which the ordinarily stodgy old straightman Bill Collinson displays wonderfully crisp mental agility as he invents all sorts of nonsensical "deductions" (holidays, lunch hours) in order to deprive employee Alfie Dean of his wages; so poor Alfie ends up with no wages at all for a year's work. Sounds familiar? Didn't Bud and Lou do this same routine in One Night in the.... Wait a minute - I said all that before. My God, it's contagious. I'm stealing material from myself!

Bill Collinson "wrote" their material; but the biographical details on a contemporary cigarette card provide the most likely solution to "how Collinson wrote Abbott and Costello's routines ten years before they existed". He'd toured extensively in American vaudeville in the 1920s; so he probably remembered all this great material (or if he was as crafty as I think he was, wrote it all down at the time) and recycled it for himself and Alfie.

This discussion could go on forever. I suppose we should be grateful that all these classic bits are on film and no matter who performs them, they're a pleasure to watch, and they remind us of the comedy of a bygone age. It all happened more than sixty years ago, and we'll never know the true authorship of much of it. But who did write "Belt in the Back"? Cantor? Lew Hearn? Some forgotten, neglected American burlesque comedian?

Or Bill Collinson?

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Blogger Ivan G. said...

Wasn't Cantor under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time of Ziegfeld's release? Sam may not have wanted Eddie working for MGM.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I think you're probably right. MGM would have had to have gotten permission from Eddie to use his likeness in the film, anyway. And I'll bet he got paid just the same.

4:38 PM  

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