Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films - part 4 (a)

by Geoff Collins

At last! We've reached the final part of Funny Faces on the Films, or Manic Mugs on the Movies, that intriguing 4-page photo feature from my beloved but crumbling Film Fun Annual 1939 in which the great and the adequate share equal billing, before time and posterity sorted 'em out. At least I can claim that this is the first part of the last part. [Later on, I may attend the party of the first part of the last part; it's that time of year, folks] Two of our subjects deserve a bit more than a cursory glance, and you, dear reader, don't want to be here all night and neither do I! So we'll get to 'em later! In the meantime...

It's Good-Natured Wimp week! Jack Haley certainly falls into that category. Not in real life, I'm sure, but it's fair to say that this most charitable and amiable of men often came across as bland and diffident on screen, apart from his well-documented and justly-praised turn as the Tin Man. By the mid-forties when he was appearing in things like Higher and Higher (a "let's put Sinatra in something - anything!"-motivated adaptation of his Broadway flop) Jack was more or less on autopilot. In People Are Funny he's so insipid that when his brilliant idea for a radio show is stolen from him by a couple of sharpies, he [apparently - please don't ask me to sit through all of it] just lets it happen. Mind you, even Stan and Ollie could pull a fast one on this Haley. Much more acerbic - and more fun, but probably for all the wrong reasons - is the wise-guy New Yorker persona he adopts in the Vitaphone short Saltwater Daffy. This excellent two-reeler is featured in the misleadingly-titled Three Stooges Early Years DVD set, and teams Haley with Shemp Howard. At least Shemp looks the part; Haley's would-be pickpocketing toughie character is totally at odds with his appearance of baby-faced innocence. Haley could do Cantorish sarcasm very well, as he proves in Follow Thru; it's a pity he wasn't allowed to do it more often. Why didn't somebody think to team him with Joan Davis?

The photo of Jack Haley "and friend" dates from 1933 and the un-named friend is Jack's Sitting Pretty co-star Jack Oakie in his costume for Paramount's woefully misjudged Alice in Wonderland (employ all the stars at your studio and render them unrecognizable!) Oakie was never a wimp of any kind: this was the man who stole an entire movie from Charlie Chaplin, with his immortal Napaloni in The Great Dictator ("You gotama carpet? Putama down!") Subsequently this cheerful double-taker became almost as chubby as he appears here, and disappeared into the morass of routine Fox musicals - although The Great American Broadcast is anything but routine, probably Jack's best starring vehicle. Like our other Jack, he enlivened many ordinary movies, glowed in a few good ones (Million Dollar Legs) and occasionally, as in The Rat Race, showed us what a sensitive actor he really was.

Another good-natured wimp: Robertson Hare. Even in his earliest appearances this bald little man looked middle-aged. He also looked worried, harassed and embarrassed. "Bunny" Hare was most comfortably placed at the top of the supporting cast, although his character was frequently made as uncomfortable as possible due to some devious plot concocted by the very best of London's stage comedians (Walls, Lynn, Henson) who used him as an unwilling stooge. "Farce" is a maligned and misunderstood word. At its best, it's a perfect art form and its history is lovingly catalogued in Brian Rix's excellent Life In the Farce Lane.

Many of the "Aldwych farces", written by Ben Travers in the 1920s for the Aldwych Theatre, were filmed in the early 30s due to the efforts of director/star Tom Walls who was just as wily a networker offscreen as he was on. Much of the fun to be had from these charming period pieces revolves around the efforts of Walls and his initially reluctant accomplice, silly-ass Ralph Lynn, to extricate themselves from some self-inflicted predicament via treachery and subterfuge. Poor Bunny Hare always got caught up in this; as a visiting vicar or some other entirely innocent petty-authority figure, he often ended up trouserless. "Oh calamity!" he would declaim in that choirmaster's voice, and we all felt for him. His humiliation was total.

Laughter and Life, an uncompleted, unreleased documentary, can be viewed on the Pathe website; it includes a warm, friendly conversation between Bunny and Sid James, leading into a lengthy clip from Aren't Men Beasts? which demonstrates perfectly the on-screen relationship between long-suffering Bunny and his frequent stage-and-screen partner, bald, bullying, overbearing Alfred Drayton. British farce at its best. Bunny was still active into his late seventies, in the TV series All Gas and Gaiters. His character was a bit more crafty but, bless him, he still looked exactly the same. Another Pathe clip shows him distributing Christmas gifts to poor children, which just about sums up this warm-hearted man.

Yet another good-natured wimp - whether in real life or not, I don't know - was Claude Dampier. Who remembers him now? He was seriously limited by his startling appearance, a tall, terminally toothy village idiot in a bowler hat, with a voice like the cultured English cousin of Peter Lorre. With this armory of horrors you can well imagine there weren't many starring roles for poor Claude. Nonetheless he was a success on radio in a double-act with his (much younger) wife Billie Carlyle, in which he gently misunderstood everything she said, and rambled on about his mysterious friend Mrs. Gibson. Claude can be seen, if memory serves, with Billie in She Shall Have Music, as a mightily irritating piano tuner in Radio Parade of 1935 ("yesss...that's right" he says, over and over again) and as an effete and frankly strange rabbit-clutching member of the teaching staff in Will Hay's early solo effort Boys Will Be Boys, although God knows what he could teach. Rabbit-clutching? The film contains one appalling moment: headmaster Hay knows that pupil Jimmy Hanley's stolen a necklace and proceeds to search him briskly. Enter Claude, to find them furiously wrestling on the floor. Hay, embarrassed, explains ""I... I was just teaching him a few tackles." "I see" says Claude, with total innocence. Gruesome; I never want to watch it again.

Claude's unique facial equipment made him a cartoonists' favourite; he's the only one of our Funny Faces to have his own cartoon strip in the Annual itself, breezing through each situation with that fixed rictus grin - and he also appears on the cover, which is enough to frighten anybody off. No wonder it's a rare book.

By a process of elimination you will have worked out that our remaining two Funny Faces are Stanley Lupino and Jimmy Durante [Nigel Bruce voice: "Amazing, Holmes; how do you do it?"] but I'll deal with them, fairly, I hope, during our next dip into this Holiest and Grailiest of movie books. [Big, terrifying close-up of Durante: "It won't be long now, folks! Ha-cha-cha!"]

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Blogger Ivan G. said...

Why didn't somebody think to team him with Joan Davis?

Actually, someone did...on radio, anyway. Davis inherited Rudy Vallee's Sealtest Program (where she has been a regular for many years) in 1943 when the Vagabond Lover went into the service and it was retitled The Sealtest Village Store. Haley was brought in as Joanie's sidekick even though many argued she was perfectly capable of carrying the show all by her lonesome. After two seasons, Joan jumped ship to CBS Radio with a solo show (known alternately as Joan Davis Time and Joanie's Tea Room) and Haley continued on with Village Store for two more years with Eve Arden now running the joint. Haley left in July 1947 (it was said he was taking a vacation--but he never returned) and Arden finished out the last season of the program with Jack Carson by her side.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Haley and Joan Davis also did a movie together call George White's Scandals in 1945.

12:19 PM  

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