Thursday, March 15, 2007

Up Millcreek (Without a Paddle)

by Geoff Collins

Classic? Musicals??

You know, strange as it may seem, Third Banana writers these days give each other very unusual gifts. Obviously, these presents will have some connection with obscure and often prehistoric comedy which, gnome-like, we can sit and absorb and enjoy unbothered by the shallow whims of popular culture.

As our desire to explore the outer limits of arcane humour takes hold even more, it was with joy that I informed Aaron of my latest find, in a cheapo store in my home town of boring old Bedford, in England: a fifty--film DVD set from Millcreek Entertainment entitled Classic Musicals. First question: how did they get fifty movies into a box set measuring 4x13x19 mm ? Easy; on twelve double-sided DVDs. Some of the films are less than an hour long so these are squeezed three to a side. Next question: Are they Classic Musicals ? Wellll.... Question Three: how did Aaron react when I told him my good fortune? I'll quote from his reply:
"AAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! Now I gotta get you another Christmas gift!!!!!! This is just plain Spooky!!!! SPOOKY, I TELL YOU!!!!! Ah, well.."
Calm little chap, isn't he? So clearly this package is available on both sides of the Atlantic. For our British readers, I suggest you try The Works, where it's now reduced to £15. Question Four: how can Millcreek put out fifty movies so cheaply? Because they're all in the Public Domain, that's why. So we have the usual old favourites such as MGM stuff that's somehow avoided copyright renewal (Mr. Imperium, Till the Clouds Roll By, Royal Wedding), mundane oddities with glorious moments (Private Buckaroo, The Fabulous Dorseys, Second Chorus) and quite a lot of absolute crap from Monogram and PRC. The output of PRC is virtually unknown in the UK, which is probably just as well, even the basest of TV channels being unwilling to screen such terminal crumminess. Yet on this set we can see probably their finest hour: Benny Fields in Minstrel Man. Its minstrel-show setting may be flagrantly racist and Benny may be just marginally ahead of Jessel in the faux-Jolson stakes, but he's rare and treasurable. I loved it.

So this set is Highly Recommended to Third Banana readers. Why? Because amidst all that dross - bloody hours of it - there's some wonderful comedy.

For example:

Glorifying the American Girl - one of the most woeful cascades of misery ever inflicted on the American public. The history of this troubled early talkie is covered in some detail in Richard Barrios' A Song in the Dark. Like so many other movies in Millcreek's set, this gloomy backstage sob-story is lacking its Technicolor because it derives from a 1950s TV print made at the time when colour printing wasn't considered a feasible option. Nonetheless, after an hour and a half of Mary Eaton's suffering (or, from the audience's viewpoint, suffering Mary Eaton) We're treated to the full twelve minutes of Eddie Cantor's tailor sketch, "Belt in the Back", filmed, as so many TV sitcoms would be twenty-five years later, in a continuous take using three cameras. It finishes very abruptly (probably the film ran out!) and once or twice the picture slows down and then speeds up again, to most unsettling effect. This is Murphy's Law: The flaws are always during the best sequences (as in Plane Nuts on The Three Stooges Early Years). Readers: check our archive for details of the unsavoury 1949 lawsuit concerning the true authorship of this piece. Who'd have thought that twelve minutes of New York Jewish comedy could arouse such animosity? [And incidentally, who's the little guy playing the customer?]

People Are Funny - and sometimes movies are funny, but not this one, a really, really, really awful Paramount B-picture in which Jack Haley is emasculated and conned out of his rightful property, the People Are Funny radio show. I quote from Millcreek's synopsis:
"His rival Frances Langford (Ozzie Nelson) has plans of his own."
Frances isn't actually portrayed by Ozzie, of course, but she might as well be; her opening "guest star" number is ripped out of the movie in one of the clumsiest cuts I've ever come across. But... joy of joys (no, cancel that; it isn't that thrilling) we get a glimpse of Joe De Rita with hair, as an unwilling victim of "amusing" audience participation. It's near the end; use the fast forward button... please!

Breakfast in Hollywood. My dad really liked this movie, based on genial Tom Brenaman's morning radio show, and his judgment's correct: it's competent and pleasant. We've commented before on the number of lesser-lights [and even Besser-lights] who've copied Bert Lahr and ripped off his mannerisms: Brown, Skelton, Berle, even Snagglepuss. But there's one we forgot. In this little movie Spike Jones and his City Slickers give us their version of the "Glow Worm Idyll", featuring saxist Ernest "Red" Ingle. Loud, bellowing, cross-eyed, baggy-panted, he's very funny...but he's not original. He's the Bastard Prince of the Forest. The Spike Jones record of Chloe has long been acknowledged as a classic (and there's a film version if you can find it, in Bring On the Girls) but nothing will ever convince me that Ingle is anything more than a sub-Lahr in the same way that Jessel and Benny Fields are sub-Jolies. Speaking of which:

Stage Door Canteen: a grim, bleak, out-of-focus print but this most all-star of all all-star films has some rare New York talent between the ephemeral wartime romances: Ed Wynn, apparently in good shape despite the depression he often had to endure [readers: we really love Ed. Is that too obvious?]; sub-Jolie George Jessel, on the phone to his mother ("Hello? Mom? Georgie - your son - from the money every week..."); twitchy-jawed vent Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy; and Franklin Pangborn's so-gay reaction to Johnny Weissmuller's rippling torso: "Oh my, what a chest!" Merle Oberon's brisk "warm smile" for the boys going overseas (it's at 1:21:19) is the most insincere, patronising thing I've ever clapped eyes on. She reveals herself as a goddess who's empty inside - a bit like Vivien Leigh.

Two of the most mediocre pictures in this set are temporarily ignited by the supporting roles played by one-trick-pony Cliff Nazarro, reprising his deadpan, indecipherable double-talk from You'll Never Get Rich; in Trocadero we're treated to a section of his night-club act. Funny? Absolutely. Enduring? Not really. Readers should catch the last ten minutes of Carry On Regardless for Cliff's English equivalent, Stanley Unwin. Why didn't anybody come up with an International Gobbledegook Championship? Nazarro of the US versus Unwin of the UK?

There are also a large number of African-American performers on display as well, where the richness of talent is barely hampered by the shoddy production values of these movies, necessarily (and quite unfairly) having to be made outside mainstream Hollywood. Duke Ellington! Lena Horne! Dusty Fletcher! Cab Calloway! And who's the coolest cat ever in the history of the entire universe?

Louis Jordan!

Uh oh, I forgot something. Let me think for a moment. Ah yes...

The Rocky Horror Picture Show of 1941!!!

Actually that's not the title, but it would be about right. It is in fact All American Co-Ed [the pun may be lost on British readers]. Johnny Downs and Frances Langford are the stars of this 48-minute Roach "streamliner". Frances isn't played by Ozzie Nelson here either, but it would be quite appropriate as nearly everyone else in the movie seems to be indulging themselves in some sort of cross-dressing frenzy. Right from the start, when the "chorus girls' legs" on the opening credit sequence are revealed to be male, boys dress as girls for plot purposes (and probably also for non-plot purposes; who knows what went on here?) and Frances Langford strides around for much of the time in what I can only describe as Tyrolean dungarees. You probably have some idea already what the musical numbers are like. And amidst all this jaw-dropping gender-distortion, sixth-billed, is Harry Langdon at the top of his form. Bespectacled and relaxed, far from the wreck described by Capra, he's adept at dialogue and fully in control of all his familiar gestures, for example s-l-o-w-l-y reacting to an insult by letting his smile drop in sections. Elsewhere, confronted by a Venus Fly Trap and informed of its carnivorous nature, he feeds it his ham sandwich. The Harry Langdon Story was no tragedy, as we'll discuss later. It's genuinely heartening to see him in such good shape. Personally, I think All American Co-Ed is a great little movie for all sorts of reasons, but as Ollie Hardy once said, we won't go into that.

This, then, is the Millcreek Classic Musicals set. Space forbids further detailed examination, so I'll just say find it, buy it, cherish it - and more importantly, comment on it. Let's hear from you. Amos 'n' Andy in Check and Double Check? Wheeler and Woolsey (and ohhhh God, Everett Marshall; where did they find this dope?) in Dixiana? George Givot in Fiesta? Jimmy Durante in Palooka??? The floor is yours, readers. Ha-cha-chaaa!!!

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Blogger East Side said...

Another fan of "Minstrel Man"! I love this ridiculous movie. Love how everyone's dressed like it's the 1944 (which would make sense), then you realize the it takes place in the '20s and early '30s. And how Benny Fields' character drops in and out of his friends' lives like a pogo stick. And, especially (SPOILER ALERT!), when his grown-up daughter meets him for the first time, greets him like he was away for the weekend. Trivia: The song Benny sings ad nauseum, "Remember Me to Caroline," was nominated for an Academy Award that year. (I've got the radio broadcast to prove it -- roughly 14 songs were nominated that year.)The print I've got is from the UK, complete with the censor's seal of approval.

As for Capra's take on Harry Langdon: try to track down a great Capra biography from the '90s, "The Catastrophe of Success," for the real deal on the director and Langdon himself.

6:52 AM  

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