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!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw MERRY GO ROUND OF 1938 in the early 70s when Boston's Ch.38 bought a package of Universal B comedies to show every sunday.It was okay.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

A good kind of "okay" or a yaaaawwwwn (burp) "okay"?

7:36 PM  

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