Thursday, July 06, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films - Part 3 (c)

by Geoff Collins

This one's a quickie. It has to be; I've spent far too much time and energy on Charming Chops in the Cheap Seats (part 3) already. My initial intention was a straightforward series of articles based on this four-page photo feature from Film Fun Annual 1939, with equal coverage given to each artiste. Easy enough, you would think. All went well until the third page. Eddie Cantor took over (there's a surprise) and demanded an article of his own ("or I won't appear!") Cliff Edwards, in a much less pushy way, also deserved, and received, his own feature; which leaves us with the remaining Page Three Guys pining away because they haven't been given equal space. Fortunately they're all dead [never thought I'd write those words: fortunately they're all dead] so they don't know they've been sidelined.

HERBERT MUNDIN was sidelined quite early. Compared to someone like Eddie Cantor, round-faced Mundin was small potatoes - in fact he looked like one - but in the 1920s he was a celebrated mainstay of West End musical comedies, a highly-regarded sketch comedian. After a few minor British comedies in the early thirties - do we know anyone who's actually seen East Lynne on the Western Front? - he was off to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. Poor little Herbert got neither, really, but he made a good living, and he's in two films which are frequently revived. In MGM's David Copperfield he's Mr. Barkis, shyly wooing Jessie Ralph ("Barkis is willin'!"); and in The Adventures of Robin Hood he's Much the Miller's Son, shyly wooing Una O'Connor in a repeat of their romance from Cavalcade. Herbert was only forty when he died in a traffic accident on March 5, 1939, and he always looked much older than he actually was; the photo in the Film Fun Annual feature is also in Picture Show Annual 1934, so Herbert's only about thirty-five here although he looks in his fifties. Like Sid Field, whom he resembled in many ways, he had a quiet gift for unforced pathos. Never a movie star, he was an effortless, memorable scene-stealer.

JACK BUCHANAN was also a London stage star, but he was tall, debonair and good-looking, a song-and-dance smoothie with more of a chance at movie stardom than alas! poor Herbert. Jack had two cracks at Hollywood. When the talkies arrived, so did Jack; he made the now-vanished Paris, with Irene Bordoni, and the marvelous Monte Carlo with Jeanette MacDonald, in which he was recently described, unfairly but hilariously, as a "smarmy British wimp". [Who said this? Was it Richard Barrios? I like to give credit where it's due - but I promised not to reveal who called Cantor a "whiny bitch" - didn't I, Aaron?] Jack was in fact Scottish but the accent rarely surfaced. He sang romantic ballads like "Goodnight Vienna" in a soft nasal twang that could wander off-key and back again within a single word. His fans were devoted to him. And as for his dancing, well.... In Great Britain he was often compared to Fred Astaire but he wasn't really in the same league (as who would be?) He clomped about all over the stage like an Afghan hound in tap-shoes, but the miracle was that everyone believed it because he made it look so easy and graceful. Call it charisma, star power, whatever; it worked.

Back from Hollywood at the beginning of 1931, Jack spent the rest of his career as an actor-manager in the London theatres and studios. For such a major star, his movies are incredibly elusive; they were all musical comedies, a few screen originals interspersed with film versions of his stage shows such as This'll Make You Whistle, which had stage and screen versions running in the West End at the same time. The Daily Express, February 11, 1937:

"Jack Buchanan will be seen on stage and screen in adjoining houses and the same show next week. "This'll Make You Whistle" is playing in the flesh at Daly's; on the screen at the Empire.

Jack has only to walk along Lisle Street if he forgets his part."

Fortunately a scratchy old print of the film still exists so we can enjoy his duet with Elsie Randolph, "I'm in a Dancing Mood", a relaxed treat that's been excerpted in "To See Such Fun" and elsewhere. It has a dated charm that seems to sum up the entire decade. This'll Make You Whistle - they don't make titles like that any more. The one Buchanan film we'd most like to see is one of the missing ones: Break the News, co-starring Maurice Chevalier, directed by Rene Clair. How could anyone let this one get lost?

Jack's renaissance came in the early 50s with another stab at Hollywood; and many of us will have seen his outstanding turn as the megalomaniacal producer in The Band Wagon, and wondered "Who's that?" Subsequently Jack made a pleasant Eastmancolor version of his stage success As Long As They're Happy, and the disastrous swansong of Preston Sturges, The Diary of Major Thompson, which did for him what The Sin of Harold Diddlebock did for Harold Lloyd. Sadly it was Jack's swansong too. He deserves to be better remembered; but as so many of his movies have tap-danced away over the hills, never to be seen again, he's rarely mentioned now. He was an excellent song-and-dance man.

ROSCOE KARNS. Kindly allow me to have a ramble through the Roscoes. There was Roscoe Arbuckle, Rosco Ates (the spelling favored by MGM) and there was Roscoe Karns. We don't need to concern ourselves with Arbuckle, except to say that The Day the Laughter Stopped is the best book written about him; and I, Fatty is the worst book written about him (or about anybody).

Rosco Ates stuttered; was stuttering ever amusing? According to Picture Show Annual 1934, he stuttered as a child, overcame this affliction, then became nervous during his first big talkie (Cimarron) which brought it on again. He was a big hit so he carried on with it and it became a trademark. He stutters all over What-No Beer? for "comic relief" but the effect is far from comic. With some justification, he was featured in Tod Browning's Freaks. A genuine stammer can be amusing if comedic talent and timing are involved (Eli Woods, Glenn Melvyn) but not if it's false and forced (Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours; and Rosco Ates)

Roscoe Karns: still a minor player really, a character actor, but a sharp and incisive one. It's a nice coincidence that he shares the page with Cliff Edwards, because a year later he shared a newsroom with him. In His Girl Friday, Cliff is wisecracking reporter Endicott, and Roscoe Karns is wisecracking reporter McCue. It would be hard to find a reporter in this marvelous movie who isn't a wisecracker; Howard Hawks assembled a superb cast and gave everybody a chance to shine. He may have recalled Roscoe's similar turn in It Happened One Night. All our Funny Faces can claim at least one Classic Movie credit.

We've mentioned this before: if there's one fault with Flunny Flaces on the Flilms [I'm gettin' tired of this; does it show?] it's that it confuses and combines character actors with comedians. Roscoe Karns was a character actor, and a very good one; like Ned Sparks before he joined the Undead.

Hopefully part 4 will give me a lot less trouble, but I doubt it. We'll meet a Tin Man, a village idiot, and another Lupino (can't have enough of those!) We'll have an Oh Calamity! and encounter the most notorious of Buster's co-stars. Hahhhhhh! It's your toin next, folks! It won't be long now! Ha-chahhhhh! [Huge, terrifying close-up. Fade out.]

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3:34 AM  

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