Monday, December 11, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films - part 4 (b); The Final Thrashings

by Geoff Collins

This time we've finally reached the end of our look at the weird or wonderful comedy people from Film Fun Annual 1939. Only two comedians remain unaccounted for, as different from each other as it's possible to be. Have I saved the best until last?

STANLEY LUPINO: as I mentioned in an earlier article, it puzzled me that there could be two Lupinos, one of whom used Lupino as his Christian name. This was the immortal Henry George Lupino, known professionally as Lupino Lane and privately as Nipper, a celebrated star of silent Hollywood two-reelers and 1930s London stage musicals. Versions of Me and My Girl are still touring today; Ivy and I saw this classic show at the Milton Keynes Theatre on Nov. 28th, and if Nipper was as funny as Michael Frame in the lead role, he must have been a truly great comedian. Which he was, of course...

Stanley Lupino was Nipper's cousin, or uncle, or grandad, or sister. Who knows? To avoid and also cause confusion at the same time, we offer you another look at the Lupino Family Tree, from John Parker's Who's Who in the Theatre, 1946:

Stanley's birthdate is usually given as 1893, not '94 as stated here, but I'll let you know definitely when I get a good look at his impressive monument in Lambeth Cemetery. He was Ida's dad, co-starred with Thelma Todd in You Made Me Love You (a hilarious updating of The Taming of the Shrew) and was notoriously the host of the Hollywood party from which Thelma drove home to her mysterious death. Stanley, however, didn't make any pictures in Hollywood. His thirteen movies were all made in London and were mostly cinematic versions of his stage musicals; for Stanley, like Nipper, was a superb stage comedian, often seen in partnership with the underrated and sadly underfilmed Laddie Cliff (1891-1937). Stanley and Laddie worked beautifully together; they were both small, quirky, dapper and acrobatic. Over She Goes is, in my opinion, the best example we have of what a 1930s London musical comedy looked like, and it contains one heck of a number, "Side By Side", sung and danced all around the room at lightning speed by Stanley, Laddie and the "romantic lead" John Wood. This dazzling routine can be seen on the Pathe website and includes an incredible 360-degree pan; for a few seconds the stagey country-house set seems real. (Maybe it was; the exterior shots are very impressive). In this movie, and others which Stanley usually wrote himself, he and Laddie are ex-music hall performers incongruously in love with classy society girls. After the inevitable farcical complications (dressing up, pretending to be your own long-lost uncle; you know the sort of thing) with some interesting musical interludes along the way, all ends well. In Cheer Up, aspiring songwriter Stanley has to prove to his pal Roddy Hughes (Laddie being presumably unavailable for this one) that he can write a song about anything - and he comes up with the tender ballad "Steak and Kidney Pudding, I Adore You". Now that's a collector's item.

Stanley's movies are woefully neglected and unavailable, so please search out the bits and pieces on the Pathe website and enjoy his talent. It's now known that he was a highly-strung, temperamental hypochondriac, dabbling in spiritualism (through loneliness, when his wife Connie went to Hollywood with Ida), claiming to be in communication with the ghost of Dan Leno, and frequently threatening not to go onstage due to some mystery ailment. Actually he wasn't kidding. It was cancer that eventually got him, in his late forties, so he's forgotten today; and that's a disgrace. He's buried, appropriately enough, near his idol Dan Leno. Someday soon, when I make the pilgrimage, I'll let you know all the details.

Our final character - and I use the term advisedly - is far from forgotten.

JIMMY DURANTE: "It won't be long now, folks! Ha-cha-cha!" says Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante, straight to camera at the end of What-No Beer? in the most terrifying close-up since Nosferatu. It's not easy to be indifferent about this cheerful, ebullient entertainer. To most Americans he's Vaudeville Personified; strangely, admirers of Buster Keaton take a quite different viewpoint. Buster's career was starting to slide a bit once he'd become entangled in MGM's vice-like grip, so they brought in the Schnoz, initially as a supporting player in The Passionate Plumber (which stinks, believe me) then as a below-the-title co-star: Buster Keaton in Speak Easily with Jimmy Durante; and finally as, in effect, half of a double-act: Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in What-No Beer? By the time of this final effort Buster was an alcoholic mess, a fact sadly visible onscreen, and Jimmy had to carry much of the movie himself, not to everyone's satisfaction. It's one of the most vilified films ever made, as if Jimmy is being blamed personally for circumstances beyond his control. But what was he supposed to do? Nearly forty, hardly a Clark Gable lookalike, he was unlikely to say no to a top Hollywood studio anxious to promote him to star billing; and Buster's decline was by this point inevitable anyway. What-No Beer? is no classic (Speak Easily is a better movie) but Buster and Jimmy are convincing as old army pals anxious to break into the beer racket at the end of prohibition:

Mr. Jordan (financier): Well, er...this is a new enterprise for you, Jimmy. (glances at blank-faced Buster, whose naive responses have nearly undermined their scheme) Have you known your partner long?

Jimmy: Oh, yes. (all smiles) We were shell-shocked together in France.

Mr. Jordan: Oh, you were?

Jimmy: (dirty look at Buster) But I got over mine.

The movie also has a pleasantly quiet running gag, prompted by this choice bit of dialogue. It's raining outside, and taxidermist Buster removes his umbrella from a stuffed-kangaroo umbrella-stand:

Jimmy: What's that?!

Buster: That's a kangaroo.

Jimmy: A what?

Buster: A kangaroo - a native of Australia.

Jimmy: (aghast) Oh!!! (slaps his own face in horror)

Buster: What's the matter?

Jimmy: My sister married one o' dem!

The only problem with this much-maligned movie - if it is a problem - is that Jimmy, by his very nature as a performer, hardly lets Buster get a word in; and yet he did this to everybody - or so posterity would have us believe, for let's not forget, this was all scripted. Keaton fans should be more lenient towards Jimmy and his bombastic malapropisms. It's hard not to like a man who, when asked if he ever wanted to play Hamlet, replied "To hell with dose small towns - New York's da place for me!"

That's it, readers; we've Finally Finished the Funny Faces. Have a Happy [insert here whatever you intend to celebrate] and I'll be back soon with some more obscure people you've never heard of. But trust me, they're all worth the effort. Adios.

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