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!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got to know of FILM FUN as a child in Brookline MA USA when I bought THE PENGUIN BOOK OF COMICS.So names like Arthur Askey, Dan Leno, Izzy Bonn, Handley, Etc. became known to me through this wonderful book.

7:16 PM  

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