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.

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Anonymous John Owen said...

Merman and Lahr duplicated their performance of the single number "Friendship" from Du Barry for a variety show in the fifties. A soundtrack of this is available from the Smithsonian. Lahr is superb and even manages to work in a GNONG GNONG GNONG. Or is that inevitable?

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

I love the fact that you're writing about Bert Lahr, possibly the greatest of the "third bananas" Notes On A Cowardly Lion is also my favorite show biz book.

12:30 AM  
Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

Also, any way to actually see Bert in Flying High?

12:31 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Flying High has been notoriously hard to track down. I managed to find a copy of Follow the Leader w/ Ed Wynn for the love o'pete, but I have yet to see Flying High available anywhere.

The Lahr book IS one of the best celebrity bios ever written. And unlike other bios written by children of celebrities, John Lahr writes with respect and love for his father while still remaining objective as a critic.

.. as for the "Friendship" soundtrack, that's now on must must-have list as well..

7:34 PM  
Blogger James Rios said...

I actually mistook Joe E. Brown for Bert Lahr in his "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" cameo. I had always sensed a similarity, mainly because both men sported signature "wails," which Brown released in that particular cameo.

Its a shame for both men, really, since both sported pretty substantive careers spanning decades, but would be chiefly remembered for playing, respectively, a Cowardly Lion in a classic children's feature ("family film"), and as a geriatric millionaire with dubious taste in women (to say the least) in a classic cross-dressing comedy. It also goes to show that comedian feuding over lifted material is nothing really new (koff Carlos Mencia vs. Joe Rogan koff).

7:47 AM  

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