Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's the name of his other leg?

Don't never say I didn't never do nothing for you. Thanks to the futuristic miracle of the digital interwebnet, I'm proud to bring you Penny Wise, one of Joe Cook's shorts for Educational Pictures and one of the precious few films this very talented comedian ever made. This is, IMO, one of the best of Cook's Educationals. Penny Wise (1935) features Joe once again as Mr. Widget, this time employed as a department store salesmen. The carefree Widget is perceived by his frustrated coworkers as inept at his work, but why they should think so is unclear as it's plainly obvious that Widget is, in actuality, barking mad. Like all good comics, Widget is on an entirely different plain of consciousness from the dunderheads who surround him and, as far as he's concerned, being a salesman means promoting the store's competitors, insulting old ladies, and whacking golf balls off customers' heads. Meanwhile, the store's president is mighty fed up with his general manager, whom he blames for loss of revenue and who is, incidentally, engaged to his daughter. In order to prove that the store "runs itself", and thereby prove that the general manager is deserving of neither a job nor his daughter's hand in marriage, the president in his Solomon-like wisdom decides to place the most "incompetent" salesman in charge while he takes a little vacation. If his business is in utter ruins by the time he gets back, he'll double the general manager's salary and consent to the marriage. Naturally, as madness=incompetency in the weird world of this film, Widget is placed in charge of the store with madcap consequences. Besides blowing up like a balloon after drinking yeast and burping all over people, Cook gets to demonstrate his impressive juggling and balancing skills. During the climactic chase, he even orders the projectionist to rewind the film so that he can have a second chance not to be caught (and beaten to death) by the marauding store president! DON'T YOU EVER MISS IT!!

Download the movie here courtesy of RapidShare. It's a lightweight 35.4 MB file with a fairly small picture (240 x 180) so those with slower computers and/or connections won't be left out of the fun. Oh, and it's free.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films No. 1

by Geoff Collins

Although lack of inspiration has tempted me to have yet another look at MGM's flatulent blob The Great Ziegfeld - and I've still got quite a bit to say about it, believe me - I decided to turn instead to my beloved Film Fun Annual 1939. I paid three old English pence (about one and a half pence in the current decimal coinage) for this gem of a book at a garden fete in Bedford in 1963 when I was seven years old. Both the garden and the beautiful Victorian house are no more, flattened to make way for the Lurke Street Multi-Storey Car Park, which is even more of a tasteless monstrosity than The Great Ziegfeld; but I still have the book, albeit in a battered, fragile and mouldy state - and so is the book. I can genuinely state that this book generated my fascination - some of you, Aaron included, might call it an obsession - with archaic and obscure comedy, a passion which persists to this day. What do I care? It's been a lot more fun than train-spotting.

Film Fun was a weekly children's comic in Great Britain, presided over in the early days by "Eddie the Happy Editor" (Fred Cordwell, who occasionally appeared as evil mastermind Professor Lewdroc - "Cordwell" nearly backwards - in photo shoots for the Jack Keen detective stories). Initially there was a sister paper, The Kinema Comic, which ceased publication in 1932, leaving Film Fun unique in that its comic strip stories featured real comedians of the time in downmarket urban settings which would have been familiar to the majority of its readers. By the early 1960s most of these comedy stars had vanished off the face of the earth. I'd heard of Laurel and Hardy because the BBC regularly screened their shorts; and Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy had recently been released, introducing me to the joys of this eager 'twenties go-getter. But who the hell were Wheeler and Woolsey? Or Sydney Howard? Or Joe E. Brown? Or Claude Dampier? Or Claude Hulbert? Who were these people? It took the best part of forty years before I was able to see all of them on film - and I've still only seen glimpses of Sydney Howard (in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, his only Hollywood movie). And to add to the mystery, in mid-book there's a superb four-page photo feature, Funny Faces on the Films, which looks very odd today. Genuine screen legends share the page with total obscurities. But some of the obscurities are genuine Third Bananas, wonderful comedians who've been forgotten altogether. Not always the case of course. For example:

Charles Ruggles, who's seen here registering disgust at an evil-tasting cup of tea. It's a funny photo; but sad to say, you won't get many laughs out of Charlie. In the 30s he was Paramount's all-purpose Resident Comedian, starring in a series of bland domestic comedies with Mary Boland. Rarely memorable, his one legendary scene occurs in If I Had a Million when his henpecked, Milquetoasty character suddenly discovers he's been left a million dollars. "The worm turns", and in no time at all he's smashed up a shopful of china. Unforgivably, he played Victor Moore's stage role in the movie of Anything Goes (not his fault; he would never intend to offend anybody) but instead of rising to the occasion, he turned in his usual unadventurous performance. Returning to the stage for most of the 40s and 50s, he re-surfaced on TV in a weird semi-sitcom, performed "live" - although "half-dead" would be more appropriate - called The Ruggles. Not only was it grammatically incorrect (because the singular of Ruggles is "a Ruggle"!) but it was badly made and attempted to be cute, coy and philosophical, and it's difficult to keep your food down while watching it. We won't mention it again.

My dad remembers Charlie Ruggles with great affection, and it's clear from Charlie's movies that he was a very nice, kind man. He was more of a character actor than a comedian; and he occasionally appeared in things like Trouble in Paradise and Bringing Up Baby. Need I say more? And so we move on to...

Wally Patch. Who??? His brief period of fame came with the London stage run of Reluctant Heroes in 1950, in which he played the gruff Cockney sergeant. Sadly he wasn't in the film version; Ronald Shiner got the role. The result? Instant stardom for Ron, and the chance to inflict his strident persona on the filmgoing public for the rest of the decade, until everybody was heartily sick of him. Wally Patch needn't have worried though, and probably didn't. He was continually in full employment, a reliable bit-player in a vast number of British films from about 1919 onwards, usually cast as a burly but friendly working-class Londoner. Sensibly, Wally didn't wander outside his range; as a consequence his characters are always believable and real. Like Sidney James, Wally didn't seem to be acting at all - which is the secret of the whole thing.

Who's Who in the Theatre tells us that his real name was Walter Vinnicombe. He was married to Emmeline; and he lived at 42 Fairhazel Gardens, South Hampstead, London NW6. His telephone number was Maida Vale 3067. Just thought you'd like to know that!

Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn. My initial source of information about all these obscure people was my dad; and he spoke very warmly about these two fellows. Walls and Lynn were usually teamed - although both made frequent solo appearances - in what became known as the "Aldwych farces", stage comedies written by Ben Travers for the Aldwych Theatre in London. Walls played a middle-aged roue, a totally unscrupulous bullying rascal - and by all accounts he was like this in real life, irresponsibly missing many of his stage performances because he was at the races (his horse April the Fifth won the 1932 Derby). His understudy was so gainfully employed that some people claimed to have seen all the Aldwych farces without seeing Tom Walls! Do I need to add that he was what we'd now call an operator? His networking skills led to an arrangement with British and Dominion Films whereby most of the plays were filmed with the original casts. Directed (usually) by Walls in that "put it in front of the camera and film it" manner associated with the Astoria studios in New York (e.g. Animal Crackers) they are priceless records of 1920s London stage comedy. By 1935 Travers was writing original film scripts, and the results, such as Stormy Weather, looked a bit more like movies.

Ralph Lynn was the "romantic lead", although by the time the film versions started in 1929-30 he was already forty-five and, let's face it, the camera showed it. (On stage he didn't get any close-ups.) He was the monocled "silly ass", invariably conned by Walls into embarking on some ill-advised cunning plan which was bound to backfire, involving all concerned in a flurry of mistaken identity, running about, hiding in cupboards and inappropriate disguise.

The supporting casts usually included Mary Brough as the tough old dowager with the heart of gold; gorgeous Winifred Shotter as Ralph's love interest, although she was young enough to be his daughter; and, best of all, madrigal-voiced stodgy baldie Robertson Hare ("Oh calamity!") as an innocent dullard caught up in Walls' trickery. Inevitably "Bunny" Hare would lose his trousers, and his dignity.

God knows where you'll see these films now, but if they turn up anywhere, don't miss 'em. The Pathe website [my God! he got this far without mentioning it!!!] has a few tantalising clips. They haven't lasted all that well, but even if they don't amuse you, enjoy the social history.

Charles Butterworth looks a bit sick, doesn't he? Poor chap. Who's heard of him now? Another rare one - but don't worry, readers, in the next article, four out of five will be Third Bananas. I'm not telling you which four.

My first visual experience of Charles Butterworth was in The Boys From Syracuse. He's a Roman senator (forgive me if I'm wrong here; I haven't seen this film for thirty years) whose every entrance is heralded by a fanfare, the final part of which is in an incongruous "swing style" which causes him mild but increasing irritation throughout the movie. It's a beautifully understated piece of comedy acting.

Charles Butterworth rarely made a fuss. He was often a middle-aged rich bachelor ineptly in pursuit of a much younger woman. One of his most typical, and most widely-available performances is in the public-domain stinker Second Chorus, the one with, wait for it, 41-year-old Fred Astaire as a collegian jazz trumpeter. (Partly thanks to Aaron, I now have three copies of this, each with a different credit sequence) Butterworth is rich Mr. Chisholm who's hopelessly in love with Paulette Goddard. (In the movie, she goes for Fred; in real life, she went for Charlie - Chaplin, that is.) To be honest, Butterworth's performance as a rich stiffened-by-booze alcoholic required no acting ability whatsoever. But - and I'll admit it's not saying much - he's the best thing in the film. Like that other bland Charles - Ruggles, that is - Butterworth sometimes stumbled into classic movies like Love Me Tonight. But despite the boozy haze that permeates everything he does - or maybe because of it! - I feel he is the better actor, always adding something special to the movie he's in.

Hugh Herbert. Woo woo! Occasionally confused with screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert, Hugh was a star of cheap Columbia two reelers (who wasn't? - and what other kind of Columbia two-reeler is there?) and a supporting player in feature films, especially Warner Bros. musicals such as Colleen, Wonder Bar and, especially, Dames, which may contain his definitive performance. Facially very similar to the English music-hall comedian Stainless Stephen [there will now be a brief pause while you all say "who cares?"] Hugh's eccentric hand-flapping woo-wooing was probably the inspiration for Daffy Duck, which in itself is a kind of immortality.

In my humble opinion, Hugh was wonderful, probably the only true Third Banana out of the six comedians we've looked at so far (all right, all right, Ralph Lynn qualifies too). If you ever get to see that so-rare phenomenon Hellzapoppin - and when are you bastards who own the rights going to release it on DVD? - you'll be astonished by Hugh's marginal and seemingly unimportant role as the detective. It's not much of a part, but what he does with it! Talking to the camera, telling his mother in the audience that he'll be late home for dinner ("Have meat!"), and, unforgettably, showing us what a master of disguise he is by popping out from behind a tree several times in quick succession, each time in a different costume and hat ("Don't ask me how I do it, folks!") Hugh provides one of those rare occasions where the supporting comic is more memorable than the stars; and as the stars here are Olsen and Johnson, that's quite an achievement.

More Funny Faces to follow. Watch this space!

Labels: , , , , , , ,

The Quoon has Sweened!

Yes, yes, I know. Aside from his 1934-1948 dry spell, Buster Keaton is about as far from a Third Banana as can be imagined, but I can't help it, I tell you! I must talk about Keaton, especially when Geoff digs up stuff like this:

It has long been a mystery to me how contemporary audiences could have possibly embraced Keaton's now-legendarily awful MGM talkies. In 1930, Buster's fine silent work should have still been fresh in peoples' minds (after all, The Cameraman had been released just two years before) but, if we're to believe what we're told, those same people laughed their asses off at the execrable Free and Easy and kept Buster a consistent box office winner through 1933 no matter how crapulous his MGM talkies may have been (or how intoxicated he was on-screen). Well, this brief review from the May 7, 1930 issue of Punch establishes that not everyone was willing to follow Buster into MGM's brave new world of grotesquely belabored doubletalk routines. It still begs the question, however, of what the remaining 99% of the moviegoing public was smoking in 1930.

But, much as I agree with E.V.L. about the quality of Buster's first talkie, he is wrong, wrong, wrong about Buster's voice. "Not so attractive as his antics".. PHAW!!

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Wheeler and Woolsey

You can actually chart the rise and fall of Wheeler and Woolsey, RKO's one-time golden boys, by looking at the evolution of their posters and newspaper ads. If RKO's publicity materials are any indication, even if Bob Woolsey not died in 1937, the team would have likely found themselves on the way out anyway. The RKO art department's lack of enthusiasm for the team post-1936 is palpable. Click on the thumbnails for the full-sized images.

Rio Rita (1929): Instead of Wheeler and Woolsey, we get Wheeler and 500 Others, a daring if rather unwieldy size for a comedy team. Bob Woolsey, however, stood out from the crowd and comedy history was made. Contrary to the poster, there is neither a "Mammoth Girl" nor mammoths in general in Rio Rita.. not even in Glorious Technicolor. Mammoth fans were sorely disappointed. The attractive deco poster lets you know that this is Ziegfeld, Daniels, and Boles' show all the way. Audiences felt differently. RKO listened and, aside from Dixiana (1930), W&W would forever more be headliners.

Cracked Nuts (1931): Wheeler and Woolsey having just established themselves as Radio Pictures' hottest properties, the studio decided to split them apart in order to get more bang for their buck. Cracked Nuts was an experiment in that direction by keeping the team apart until the movie was halfway over (blah). The Cuckoos (1930), based on Clark and McCullough's Broadway smash The Ramblers, was W&W's first solo hit and they were referred to as "the cuckoos" in Radio's press materials for years afterwards. A standard newspaper ad from the days when audiences would sit still for shorts about golfing.

Too Many Cooks (1931): Bert Wheeler's first solo feature. This unimaginative poster uses garish color to cover for the fact that nothing actually happens in the movie. NOTHING! For over an hour, Wheeler and Lee wander around a building site. No songs. No dancing. A comedy so dull and unfunny that ROSCOE ATES is brought in as comic relief. Woolsey's solo feature, Everything's Rosie (1931), is a comic masterpiece by comparison and the art for the herald (which I can't find at the moment) is very imaginative, with the double Os in Woolsey's name doubling as his glasses. Ironically, despite the mind-numbing lameness of Too Many Cooks, Radio Pictures was all set to feature Wheeler on his own again while poor Woolsey was apparently going to be dumped. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and W&W were reunited.

Caught Plastered (1931): Wheeler and Woolsey back together again. One of the two W&W pictures I haven't seen, but what a poster!! Beautiful layout, and even a little creepy.. in a good way, I mean.

Hold 'Em Jail (1932): The other W&W picture I haven't seen. Another beautiful poster, painted in that 30s pulp magazine style I love so much.

So This Is Africa! (1933): W&W were lured away from RKO to Columbia by studio president Harry Cohn who offered the team a percentage of profits rather than an up-front salary. Their only feature away from Radio was remarkably ribald (for the time) and loaded with sexual innuendoes. The Hays Office cut it to ribbons, but it's still extremely funny. The scene in which Woolsey attempts to call the Otis Elevator Company to lodge a complaint from inside a plummeting elevator is one of their best. This newspaper ad has been very clumsily trimmed, but the extremely nice halftone art indicates that Columbia was willing to give the team the best possible treatment, short of actually paying them. W&W never saw a penny for their work at Columbia.

Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934): It's a toss-up as to whether Hips Hips Hooray! (1934) or Cockeyed Cavaliers is Wheeler and Woolsey's best film. My vote goes to the former, but both are excellent. I haven't yet seen a poster for Cockeyed Cavaliers, but I assume it uses a variation on the art used on the film's sheet music and in the lower right-hand corner of this two-color movie herald. Very creative use of the dual Ws

Kentucky Kernels (1934): At the mercy of their writers, W&W start to lose their edge in this film. A full 180 from their adult fare, Kentucky Kernels is mushy kid stuff and even co-stars Spanky McFarland, on loan from Hal Roach. The whole boring mess is saved by some excellent Kalmar and Ruby songs. Audiences in 1934 made it the highest grossing W&W feature ever and the studio certainly didn't skimp on the poster art. Of what I've seen, this is my favorite W&W poster.. Vibrant and well-chosen colors, a touch of caricature to the portraits of Bert and Bob, excellent layout and typography, and that oh-so cool red outline.

The Nitwits (1935): One of my favorite Wheeler and Woolsey pictures, despite the absence of Dorothy Lee, the half-assed mystery plot and the lame climax with Willie Best. Bert and Bob turn in some of their best ever performances in some inspired gag sequences. Again, the songs are very good. This lobby card likely reproduces some of the poster art. The portrayal of Bert, Bob, and Betty Grable is a touch too dramatic for this extremely undramatic mystery-comedy. In fact, the only thing that would really tip you off to the fact that The Nitwits is a comedy is the (inappropriate) title. Nice use of a star as a graphic divider between W&W's names, though.

Mummy's Boys (1936): Everyone but Nick and myself seems to hate Mummy's Boys. It's far from their best, but it's not the team's worst. That honor, IMO, must go to Silly Billies (1935) or High Flyers (1937), with The Rainmakers (1936) coming in a close third. The story sucks and so do a lot of the gags, but, in regards to cinematography and sets, it's easily one of the best looking W&W movies. Mummy's Boys' title card, picturing Bert and Bob as mummies flanking the title, is the probably the best for any W&W picture. The poster is nice but more than a little perfunctory and, as such, is an indication that someone is losing interest in the team.

On Again-Off Again (1937): The second to last Wheeler and Woolsey picture and the poster art is now completely perfunctory (and so is the film itself, despite a few nice moments). The poster gives absolutely no real indication as to what the film is about and the layout is just plain sloppy. A cheap no-brainer on the part of the RKO's art department.

High Flyers (1937): Wheeler and Woolsey are in it. What the hell else do you need to know? I haven't seen a poster for High Flyers, W&W's last, and most depressing, movie. The caricatures in this tiny newspaper ad are rather good, but look like stock graphics. Given the downward trend in the poster art for W&W films, I'm banking on High Flyer's poster resembling the one for On Again-Off Again.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Will the real Gink Shiner please stand up?

click on thumbnails for full-sized images

In 1929, as a part of the great Broadway raid that first brought The Cocoanuts and Rio Rita to the talking screen, Warner Brothers purchased the film rights to Hold Everything, the musical comedy that had done for Bert Lahr what Poppy did for W.C. Fields. While Bert would have jumped at the opportunity to travel to the West Coast to reprise his role as would-be prizefighter Gink Shiner, but an ironclad contract kept him touring with the show. Instead, Warners cast local boy Joe E. Brown in the role (presumably saving quite a bit on salary). Former acrobat Brown was no newcomer to film, having been appearing in talkies as a "comedian" of no set personality and no particular distinction since 1928, and Hold Everything offered him a tremendous opportunity. Unfortunately, as Brown had yet to develop a real screen personality, he found himself with nothing but Bert Lahr's performance to fall back on. It seems likely that he was also egged on by the producers to imitate Lahr. Certainly, given the play's decidedly weak book, the only real asset Hold Everything had in the first place was Bert Lahr's showstopper performance (and the hit song "You're the Cream In my Coffee"). Movie audiences weren't going to be fooled into believing Brown was Lahr, but the studio was probably determined to deliver as close an approximation of the stage production as possible. The end result was Joe E. Brown playing Bert Lahr playing Gink Shiner. Bert Lahr, to put it lightly, was not amused. While gags and skits may have been stolen and re-stolen by every comic in vaudeville, characterization was sacrosanct. Obviously, if gag material was public property, a comic's reputation had to rely upon those mannerisms and specialties unique to his/her act. Brown, flouting the taboo, had apparently even gone so far as to purloin Lahr's vocal gimmicks (even "gnong gnong gnong"? Say it ain't so, Joe!). Adding insult to injury, critics lauded Brown's performance as Lahr as Shiner and he even walked away with a juicy contract that would make him Warner's star comic for the much of the decade. Incensed, and quite rightly seeing his potential future in film circling the drain, Bert Lahr wrote an angry letter to the editor of Variety (3/28/30);

It seems an outrage that a comedian can gain profit and recognition by deliberately lifting and copying another comedian's style of work. This is hurting my reputation, livelihood, and future in talking pictures.

Lahr struck back in 1931 with the film version of his second great Broadway hit Flying High, produced by the rather more prestigious MGM. The film's press materials all refer to Lahr as "the most imitated stage comedian" as though there were dozens of would-be Lahrs glutting the nation's theaters, all chanting "gnong gnong gnong!". Despite Flying High's decent box office, it was a dead end for Lahr as MGM did not sign him for further features. Instead, Lahr spent most of the 30s appearing in inexpensive if amusing Educational shorts (all produced within a stone's throw of Broadway) while his rival was churning out hit after hit for Warner Brothers. Like his friend Bobby Clark, Lahr had a personality that was decidedly a touch too extreme for film stardom. His standout performance in The Wizard of Oz is, after all, mitigated by the fact that he's playing a fairy tale lion. As a human being, the Bert Lahr of the mid-30s is outrageous and absolutely exhausting, the nearest thing to a living cartoon character the talkies had yet seen. By 1939, though, Lahr had begun to tone down his performances and would in time become one of Broadway's most nuanced and versatile comics, making his replacement by Red Skelton in Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) all the more frustrating (without Lahr and Merman the film is a washout, although it's a kick seeing young Zero Mostel as Rami the Swami openly aping Harry Ritz). Ultimately, Lahr must remain something of an enigma; a major American comedy star with half a film career and most of his greatest moments on the stage left unrecorded.

As for Joe E. Brown, he quit Warners in 1937 to make movies for David Loew. The cheap and comparatively shoddy pictures that resulted did nothing for Brown's career. By the end of WWII, his days as a star were effectively over.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Gnong But Not Forgotten

by Geoff Collins

This is only a short piece of writing because it's about a short piece of film.

How I wish The Great Ziegfeld could be described as a short piece of film. Since mentioning this style-free MGM epic a couple of weeks ago, Ivy and I have actually managed to sit through it right to the end. Hopefully the endurance medals are in the post. As more than three hours of shockingly expensive, tastelessly inept musical numbers unfolded before me (I seem to recall that one number involved wolfhounds - but don't ask me to watch it again) it occurred to me that Ziegfeld employed some of the greatest comedians in America. Yet with the exception of Fanny Brice, whose two songs are annoyingly interrupted by dialogue, none of Ziegfeld's comedy stars were in the movie. We've discussed this before, and I'm sure we'll get back to it again. In the meantime...

In search of some genuine Ziegfeld footage, I had a look at our old friend [ahhh, you know what's coming now] I typed in "Ziegfeld" and two film clips popped up. In one, there's the great man himself, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., talking to the camera about a beautiful brunette he's chosen for the '31 Follies; and the other item, "Stepping-Out Sisters", offers a genuine surprise: rehearsals for Ziegfeld's last show Hot-Cha, which opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on March 8, 1932.

The clip opens with a deftly-choreographed dance routine by the chorus girls, the last piece of "genuine Ziegfeld" (as opposed to posthumous) put on film; then there's a swift cut, and the caption introduces us to "Bert and Buddy". Guess who we're talkin' about here.

Did British audiences in 1932 recognise these guys? Bert Lahr had just made the movie version of Flying High (I've never seen it and neither has Aaron; could one of our readers kindly provide us with a copy?); and Charles "Buddy" Rogers had been a movie star since the late silents. For a few precious seconds, they give us a crosstalk act.

Buddy: They tell me the women in this show are the most beautiful in the world. How about it, huh?

Bert [coyly]: Well! Now you're speakin' up my alley! huh huh huh... Hey, ya wanna know sump'n, Buddy?

Buddy: Yeah.

Bert: Well, I don't wanna talk about myself - huh - they're crazy about me!!

Buddy: Well, I can understand that, sure, why not?

Bert: They're wild about me - huh - they won't...they won't let me alone! Here comes some now - watch me, boy! [to girls, as they approach] Hiya girls!!!

The girls rush past Bert, ignoring him completely, and gather adoringly around Buddy.

Buddy [to Bert]: Well, thanks Bert. So long! [to girls, as they squeal with delight] Shall

Buddy and the girls walk offstage. Big close-up of Bert's annoyed sideways glance. Then, cross-eyed and gazing just off-camera, he emits a resonant bellow. He looks and sounds like a moose receiving an unexpected sexual assault.

Bert: Gnong gnong gnong! [Fade-out]

This was Bert's trademark, a leftover from his vaudeville days. It's the first time I've seen it on film, and it's genuinely bizarre. Like so many of the strange and wonderful people you've met on this site, Bert's a true Third Banana, a supreme talent who was justly revered in his time but who's been neglected and mostly forgotten. Hollywood didn't know what to do with him and often misused his talents. He was the Cowardly Lion, of course, but this one great role may have actively damaged his chances in Hollywood. As he said himself "How many lion parts are there ?"

Occasionally Bert did get the breaks he deserved. Ship Ahoy is a good showcase for him; but in retrospect it looks like an audition for Du Barry Was a Lady. Bert even gets to wear his Louis XV costume from the Broadway show, but to no avail: when MGM made the Technicolor movie of Du Barry a few months later, Bert's role went to his Ship Ahoy co-star Red Skelton. Red's pretty good in the part, but you can get some idea of what was lost when you watch the scene where he's got an arrow stuck in his arse, and timid little doctor Chester Clute is trying to remove it. Moderately amusing; but try to imagine how this would play with Bert Lahr instead of Skelton - all those yells and facial expressions and animal noises. As his son John so aptly put it: "He made a most gorgeous fuss."

There are a few other highlights from Bert's sporadic film career - we'll comment on Flying High when one of our generous readers sends us a copy [second subtle hint!] - and it's almost worth sitting through Meet the People, a truly crappy MGM wartime musical, to see Bert perform a Harburg-Arlen speciality number that's at least the equal of "King of the Forest". Uncomfortably attired in a parody of naval officer's uniform, Bert's proclaiming what a great sailor he is. He crosses his eyes, he bellows, and he just about manages to contain his anger when the trombonist's slide keeps slipping in from offscreen and catching his nose. See it if you can. This is part of our job, dear readers, to find the pearls in the porridge.

(By the way, has anybody seen Bert's version of "Song of the Woodsman", which is allegedly in Merry-Go-Round of 1938. Has anybody seen Merry-Go-Round of 1938? Because we'd like to comment on another rare comedian, Jimmy Savo. But more than this, of course, we'd like to see Flying High.)

Bert was always being ripped off by lesser comics (Joe E. Brown, Berle, even the cartoon lion Snagglepuss) and his career in Hollywood, apart from Flying High [third subtle hint], consists of high spots in the starring vehicles of others - which is why the emergence of the little Pathe rehearsal clip is a cause for celebration. It's more fun than the whole of The Great Ziegfeld put together. And why wasn't Bert in that? What's the idea? What's the ideeeaaa???

Actually, as we all know, Bert himself is a cause for celebration. This selfish, insecure worrier gave us pure comedy with humanity; and don't be fooled by all those half-assed copiers of his style. He was truly original. Who cares if he played to the gallery? I'll take a seat in that gallery any time.

And as a final thought, John Lahr's tribute to his dad, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, is the best theatrical biography I've ever read. It covers everything. Find a copy - but, more importantly, find us a copy of Flying High....

Gnong gnong gnong!

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Quality Quickie

Henrby Geoff Collins

As you may know, I live in sleepy old England, and very occasionally over here the television networks surprise us with an unexpected treat in the middle of the night. (I refer, of course, to tasty vintage movies. What did you think I was on about, you wicked lot?) Last night BBC2 came up with a special treat: The Ghost Camera, made in 1933 at Twickenham Studios and on location in what looks like Corfe Castle in Dorset, a spectacular ruin. I refer to Corfe Castle, of corfe, not the film - or do I?

This is one of the great Bad Films, often cited as a typical example of the "quota quickie" whereby British cinemas in the 1930s had to show a certain percentage of British Films - resulting in the cheap little studios churning out hundreds of cheap little "fillers" of mostly mediocre quality. The Ghost Camera, however, does have a few surprises. I'm always drawn to Lupino-related movies, and here we have Ida, (daughter of Stanley, distant niece of Lupino Lane) aged about nineteen, in an early role as the leading lady. The hero is played by the revue star Henry Kendall, who wears spectacles throughout and behaves like the stuffy English cousin of Harold Lloyd.

What's initially remarkable about this little opus is that it looks like a rehearsal for The Thirty-Nine Steps, with geeky chemist Kendall and lovely blonde Ida on the trail of a mysterious murderer, who turns out to be... no, I won't spoil it for you. Kendall even sends up his part by occasionally referring to himself as a character in a melodrama. Clearly he was knocking out these cheapies in the mornings for a bit of extra cash, while appearing on the West End stage in the evening. And who can blame him? But he makes no attempt to be the conventional "leading man" and plays it all like "Teddy Deakin" in The Ghost Train, who's an insufferable twerp throughout but who turns out to be the detective at the end. Kendall had played this part on stage in 1929 so it looks as if we're being treated to a movie version of it. Nice one, Henry.

Second (and, I promise, final) remarkable point: right at the end of the movie when all the complications have been sorted out, and Ida's off with Kendall in his little Morris Cowley, Ida's brother - played by a very young John Mills - offers to take a photo of the Happy Couple. Kendall can't wait for Mills to stop fiddling about with his equipment [make up your own joke here] and gives Ida a passionate kiss. "Oh!" says Mills offscreen, "That's spoiled the picture!"

Sounds familiar? Have a look at the ending of the original silent version of The Gold Rush, and there it is, exactly the same gag. Chaplin cut it out of the 1942 reissue but the 1925 "public domain" version is still around, and so's his gag; and it's a good one. Did Charlie know that his cute little ending was poached by cheapo Twickenham Studios? Most likely not; and it's probably just as well, as he would have had the lawyers jumping about all over the place. Never mind; it gives The Ghost Camera a good finish - and it's probably obvious to all of you that I enjoyed every minute of it.

....and by the way, the police inspector did it.

Oh - I've spoiled the picture.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Too Many Cooks

click on thumbnails for full-sized images

I found these publicity stills for Joe Cook's series at Educational on eBay a couple of weeks ago and feel compelled to share. An expert juggler, acrobat, sharpshooter, dancer, magician, and musician, it was once said that Cook's understudy was the Barnum and Bailey Circus. And unlike a lot of once-famous depression-era comics, Joe Cook is every bit as capable of winning over an audience today as he was in 1931. Cook's special charm shines through even in silents, as evidenced by this 1925 newsreel appearance in which Cook displays his juggling skills and even a bit of mime. Of all the Broadway comedians who spent time at Educational, Joe Cook appears to have been most successful at bringing his brand of humor to the screen. The two shorts I've thus far seen are hysterically funny and again beg the question of why Joe Cook's film career never took wing. By all rights, as one of the 30s most endearing and versatile "nut" comics, Joe Cook should have been a major film comedy star, and yet he spent his film career producing sporadic shorts and features for the minor leagues. It's more of a legacy than has been left by many another stage talent, but it hardly seems fitting for the comic once described by one Broadway critic as "the greatest man in America".

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 02, 2006

More from that Leslie Henson fellow...

click on thumbnails for full-sized images

Geoff Collins has been kind (and obsessive) enough to send along these assorted examples of vintage Hensonalia. The two Play Pictorial covers are particularly nice and of specific interest to fans of classic American comedy. Henson played the title role in the London production of Eddie Cantor's most successful musical comedy Kid Boots (2/2/26), and some clips from the production are available on the Pathe site. Henson is also shown opposite American comedienne Zelma O'Neal in Nice Goings On (9/13/33). O'Neal, a Broadway fixture in the late 20s, appears in Peach O'Reno (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey and she's really, really not very good, another stage performer whose special appeal apparently doesn't come across on celluloid. As Dorothy Lee once said, "She had a million dollar personality but she photographed like twenty-five cents." Also included for your edification and bemusement is a 1929 review of Follow Through from Punch, starring Henson and, providing yet another link to Wheeler and Woolsey, Ada May, who played Dorothy Lee's role in the original 1927 production of Rio Rita (you can see her as Martha Raye's maid in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947)).

Labels: , , , ,