Tuesday, August 08, 2006

You're All Right Jack!

by Geoff Collins

Why can't I resist these things? I just bought a cheap DVD of black-and-white Warners Porky Pig cartoons - in a supermarket, of all places - and, surprise, surprise, the last cartoon on the disc isn't a Porky at all. It's the fourth Looney Tune ever made, complete with full original credits: The Booze Hangs High (1930). One quick glance through this and you know why the production code came in. It tells the uplifting story of two baby pigs, their dad, and Bosko the Talking [insert whatever he's supposed to be] who all get totally bladdered on bootleg liquor and form an unsteady Butcher's Shop Quartet. At one point Papa Pig belches immoderately and up comes a half-digested corn-on-the-cob, which he quickly re-locates by opening a trapdoor in his stomach. That's Entertainment. It's a long way from What's Opera Doc.

Speaking of male voice quartets and That's Entertainment....

I owe Jack Buchanan an apology. His surname should have given me a clue; he's a Third Banana in disguise. How did I describe his dancing?: "He clomped about all over the stage like an Afghan hound in tap-shoes." Ooohh... Sorry, Jack. Well, at least I'm not the one who described him as a "smarmy British wimp". To be fair, how could anyone follow the fleet-footed Fred Astaire? And yet, in The Band Wagon, Jack accomplishes exactly that, in a smooth, plaintive soft-shoe version of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan". I guess I'll have to change my opinion. Of course, this superb duet has nothing to do with comedy. However, The Band Wagon is full of comedy, and much of it is provided by Jack as egotistical, self-absorbed producer Jeffrey Cordova, a dazzling parody of multi-credit genius Jose Ferrer. Jack simply walks away with the picture.

Yes, you've guessed it; I also treated myself to the Special Edition two-DVD set of The Band Wagon. As is usual with these MGM-worshipping packages, there are a few extras: documentaries, commentaries and a copious supply of talking heads, mostly facelifted into immobility, as well as the welcome sight of veteran screenwriter Adolph Green, who looks permanently aghast, as if he's just been shot.

But there's one little gem hidden away that took me completely by surprise: a Vitaphone Varieties short, Jack Buchanan With the Glee Quartet. Thanks to the magnificent efforts of www.vitaphoneproject.com, many missing-disc Vitaphone shorts are being reunited with their missing discs. Jack's short has excellent sound and picture quality. The copyright date is below the bottom level of my screen; but I suggest this was made in New York, 1929; and it's a beauty.

Jack emerges from behind a theatre curtain. Even his ill-fitting tuxedo can't disguise the fact that he's astonishingly young and good-looking. (We've become accustomed to a craggier Jack than this). He takes the audience into his confidence: he's been asked to take the place of one of the members of the English Glee Quartet "who is unable to appear through indisposition". He hasn't had time to rehearse, he says, and he hopes this won't be apparent...

On with the show, and it's soon clear that Jack is indeed seriously under-rehearsed, but it's a slow number, and he just about gets by. Then one of the Quartet announces "an old English hunting quartet: The Fox Has Left His Lair". Shocked reaction from Jack - it's the first he's heard of this, and it's a fast number, with lots of actions - but earnestly he tries to keep pace. Mostly he's a beat or two behind the others, sometimes surprisingly ahead. He gets jostled, falls down, trips over nothing, loses his shoes and one of his cuffs (the other dangles about on a piece of string), gets his foot trodden on twice, and is generally pushed around until, at the finish, three pretty girls in hunting costume come onstage and pair up with the members of the Quartet.

Jack's face lights up in anticipation but alas! when his girl comes on, she's hefty and he immediately collapses beneath her bulk. Gamely he regains his composure and gives her a back-breaking piggy-back-ride off-stage. Fade Out.

It's quite possible, likely even, that this was a stage routine. Despite Jack's preamble, it must have been meticulously rehearsed but looks completely spontaneous; and now we know where Sid Field got his "tripping over an invisible obstacle". Jack was easily Fred's equal in that his air of relaxed urbanity was the result of dedication and hard work. Sadly his comparative obscurity today stems from the fact that so many of his films are unavailable or just plain missing. As a suave smoothie who suddenly finds himself in a situation of rapidly-unraveling humiliation, Jack was the British Max Linder; and he could sing and dance too. In this little Vitaphone short, he provides six minutes of flawless physical comedy. Jack, I take it all back. I salute you.

Banana. Buchanana. I should have guessed. Perhaps it's time for a look at Bananna Neagle.

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Blogger Jeff Cohen said...

I believe the short subject in question was made up of material filmed and used for the UK release version of THE SHOW OF SHOWS, Warner's 1929 all-star revue film.

Buchanan's entry into talkies, the 1929 WB musical comedy PARIS (with Irene Bordoni) is a lost film, but I've a complete set of discs for the international release version that suggests he more than held his own, both vocally and in the light comedy sense.



2:17 PM  
Blogger Eric Stott said...

That is a real gem of a short. When I watched it I recalled that Hugh Laurie said he based his Bertie Wooster personality on Buchannan- I can see that immediately and the young Buchannan even looks like Laurie.

5:25 PM  

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