Monday, April 30, 2007

"Feet! My favorite part of the human anatomy!"

"I've got two million ways of handling feet!" Thus speaks the Joker, played by the always incredible Hans Conried, in this equally incredible early 60s industrial safety film for the American Bridge Division of United States Steel. The Joker posits that a tights-wearing imp, presumably from Hell, causes American steelworkers to daydream about dames and speedboats, thus softening them up for gruesome "lost time accidents" involving punch presses and grinding wheels. The film makes it quite clear that at US Steel, crucial safety gear such as safety glasses and metatarsal shoes were entirely discretionary and to be paid for by the employees. The film even blames whimsical imps for such things as crumbling concrete factory floors ("which the Joker has kept from the front office"). As is to be expected, Hans Conried is wonderful as the Joker, prancing from department to department, egging on blue collar workers with visions of shrewish wives and bowling championships (so very, very sad), and then laughing with venomous glee as their fingers are scissored off or their feet are crushed. Unexpectedly, Conried even manages to make his jester/demon vaguely sympathetic in a scene in which the Joker expresses regret after a steelworker is crushed flat by a giant I-beam. "To tell the truth, I don't like it to turn out that way.." he says, sadly, raising the question of what, exactly, constitutes going too far when you're an industrial accident-causing sprite from Hell. Incidentally, Hans must have been one heck of a sport, given his costume. If you ever wanted to see a middle-aged Hans Conried frisking about in tights, this film is for you. It's available on volume 4 of Something Weird Video's Health and Safety Scare Films series along with Sid Davis's classic The Dangerous Stranger and the vomit-strewn An Outbreak of Staphylococcus Intoxication.

part 1

part 2


part 4

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Comics Gone Wild!

Professionalism is to be applauded, but there's real entertainment to be had when things go completely off the rails. I love to see the artifice of entertainment crumble because it affords me a glimpse of the often gritty reality behind the scenes, and professional comics, by dint of their nature, are endlessly more fascinating when the wheels come off. CASE IN POINT #1: Sealtest Variety Theater, 03/17/49, "Live from the Shamrock". Houston's Shamrock Hotel was the largest in the US at the time and this is a remote broadcast from its opening night. There were reported to be 150+ movie stars present at "Houston's biggest party", and they were outnumbered 10 to 1 by filthy rich Stetson-wearing drunks. The ballroom, seating 1000, was apparently overbooked by another 1000 and the ensuing chaos reduced the main attraction, NBC's Sealtest Variety Theater featuring Ed Gardner (Archie of Duffy's Tavern), Dorothy Lamour, and Van Heflin to a secondary (or thirdian.. or fourthish) attraction. Worse, the first half of the Sealtest broadcast was, from the sound of it, relayed from a intercom in the technician's booth, where you can hear the technicians yelling over the phone! It has been suggested that pranksters working for the hotel deliberately sabotaged NBC's hookup.
TECHNICIAN 1: All they're getting is swearing on the line!

TECHNICIAN 2: All they're getting is what??

TECHNICIAN 1: Swearing! (whistles)

TECHNICIAN 2: Well, it ain't coming through my system, I'll tell you that!
This particular transcription cuts to a an NBC apology and marching music after this exchange, but elsewhere the broadcast reportedly kept going, cutting only after the technicians started to swear and yell themselves. The second half is even more amazing as Ed Gardner, barely able to hear himself think over the chaos and realizing the broadcast is crashing and burning, absolutely refuses to stick to his script while his costars gamely try to reign him in.
ED: We've all been in radio a long time but who has ever seen anything like this?? Do you know that Paley is liable to withdraw the offer after this thing tonight? Well, let's play the piano, instead! Anyone want to play the piano?

VAN (trying to get back on script): Archie.. Uh, listen.. How.. how did this..

ED: You're never gonna get anywhere with this, Van.. How about we play the piano? I like to play the piano.. I'll play and you sing and I'll whistle or something...
It's an amazing train wreck of a show. You'll love it!!

CASE IN POINT #2: The Martin and Lewis Show, audition tape dated 12/22/48. Most of the scripted material heard here was recycled for the series' 4/3/49 premiere on NBC with Lucille Ball as guest. In the audition tape, Bob Hope is the guest, and the entire middle of the show disintegrates into an un-editable, un-airable ad-lib free-for-all between Bob, Dean, and Jerry. Bob and Dean spin out an endless number of gags about Jerry's haircut and then zero in on his age:
BOB: The other night he was on my show and after every joke he told, I had to throw him over my shoulder and burp him.
And better:
DEAN: Jerry..


DEAN: Your safety pin is unfastened again.

BOB: Yeah! You can see the inside of your head!
It just gets more and more beautiful. Dean grouses about his clunker straight-lines, Jerry flubs his lines and replaces them with increasingly wild and unusable reads, and Bob waltzes through it all with some of the most self-assured ad-libbing you'll ever hear. If you've ever wondered what it was that audiences saw in Martin and Lewis as a live act, everything past 29:00 should clear up the matter for you.
JERRY: Well, I hope you folks are enjoying our career...
CASE IN POINT #3: Another amazing un-broadcastable moment from The Martin and Lewis Show. Jerry flubs, Dean tells him (off-handedly) to shut up, and Jerry's insecurities come gushing out all over the stage.
JERRY: What do you mean by that? What is that "shut up"? In front of the people.. What is that embarrassment?

DEAN: I'm not embarrassing you!

JERRY: What was this thing, "shut up", like a dog, I am!

DEAN: Look..

JERRY: All of a sudden you became a master??? (makes barking sounds)
The audience eats it up, so Jerry plays it big, venting his anger and getting huge laughs all the way.
JERRY: I mean, it's the first time I ever heard it, otherwise I wouldn't make a goddamn stink about it! I don't mind, you know, when a guy says "hold it down", "lay off".. SHUT UP?? Why you no good grape squeezer, you!!
It's amazing they stayed together as long as they did!

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Be Sure Every Boy and Girl Reads This Book

In 1934, the Goldsmith Publishing Company of Chicago produced a series of three BLB-format childrens' books featuring the top kid-friendly radio comics of the day, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, and Jack Pearl. Goldsmith published a fourth book, Joe Penner's Duck Farm, the following year, just in time to cash in on Joe's meteoric decline which may account for why the book seems to be so scarce today (the others, which reportedly sold in the millions, are fairly common). All four stories were written by juvenile author Harold M. Sherman, a pretty interesting guy in his own right (his career included writing the play Mark Twain and extensive experimentation with ESP) and were supposedly devised with an assist from the stars themselves. This is, of course, unlikely, but the little "memos" (on each star's own stationary) that open and close each story do seem strangely authentic.

Cantor's memos, for instance, are terse and businesslike. I can just imagine some kid in 1934 thinking "This book and story was developed under Eddie Cantor's personal supervision?? Golly!" And as Eddie Cantor in Laughland depicts Eddie as an epoch-shifting godhead, perhaps he did have a hand in it.

Jack Pearl's memos just sound right to me for some reason. Maybe it's the faint eagerness in them and his repeated use of the word "friend". I wonder if Jack used Baron Munchausen stationary for the rest of his life. I'm venturing a "yes". Incidentally, Pearl's radio straightman "Sharlie" is also a character in the book although the real Cliff Hall wasn't used as a model for the illustrations. Also incidentally, I just discovered that every image on Jack Pearl's Wikipedia entry was ripped from this blog. Who knew?

Ed Wynn's memos are purely in character. Note that unlike the others, Ed mentions Howard Sherman by name and gives him credit for the story right away. As the story itself depicts Ed's Fire Chief character as endearingly silly rather than dangerously idiotic, it stands heads and shoulders above the wretched 1933 MGM feature. Given the multiple attempts to create narratives around a "character" (which on radio consisted of nothing more than Ed Wynn wearing a fire helmet) that was merely a nod to Texaco Fire Chief Gasolines, the show's sponsor, I've often wondered what would have happened if another company, say Cliquot Club, had sponsored instead. Would Ed have broadcast dressed as an Eskimo? Would there have been "Ed Wynn, Eskimo" toys, books, and boardgames? Would there have been an awful MGM film, The Eskimo? The mind reels...

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Stoopnocracy On the March!

Kevin has been kind enough to draw my attention to this post on Dinosaur Gardens that contains links to four Stoopnagle and Budd films in DivX AVI format; Rambling 'Round Radio Row #1 (segment), the Max Fleischer Talkartoon Stoopnocracy (1933), The Inventors (1934), and Cavalcade of Stuff (1938). As I've mentioned before, the appeal of early radio satirists Stoopnagle and Budd has less to do with their rather flat personalities than with the quality of their gags, and these films are loaded with them. Of particular interest (to me, at least) is The Inventors, an Educational-Coronet comedy that uniquely attempts to spin a narrative around their characters.. with mixed, if fascinating, results. Running nineteen minutes and thirty seconds, The Inventors is the Stoopnagle and Budd showcase.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paul Winchell On the Air!

Before he became early television's number one ventriloquist, Paul Winchell spent many (mostly) thankless years in radio, the medium that discovered him. In 1936, Paul, only fifteen and eager to convince his mother of his talent, made his public debut on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, ultimately winning the competition with an incredible impression of Edgar Bergen (who had made his own radio debut on December 17th of that year). Winchell, painfully shy and nearly overcome with stage fright, froze up before being urged on by the Major, but once he kicked into his Bergen impression, the audience was with him from the start. If his mother wasn't impressed (she wasn't, reportedly), Bowes certainly was and hired Paul to tour with a number of other Amateur Hour winners, giving the young comic some much-needed stage experience. In November, 1943, Paul Winchell was given his own series on the Mutual network. Although John Dunning claims in On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio that Winchell was riding "the crest of the Charlie McCarthy wave", The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show bears little resemblance to Edgar Bergen's hit NBC series, both in format (standard issue sitcom complete with Beulah-esque maid) and laugh quotient. If anything, the sole existing episode sounds like a forerunner of Peter Brough's Educating Archie, with Paul cast as Jerry's mostly humorless surrogate father. It's also interesting to note that Winchell's technique in this July 10th, 1944 episode, while technically excellent, hasn't yet fully matured. Sorely absent are Paul verbal takes to Jerry's comments that would later make their "interaction" so remarkably convincing. Paul Winchell's last regular radio gig actually began the year he first broke into television, 1948. The show, a telephone music quiz on New York station WOR, was apparently begun by famed morning host John Gambling and Paul stepped in as a substitute on July 5th (a July 2nd audition disc exists). Paul must have made a minor hit with the quarter-hour quiz show because the August 26th transcription has its own sponsor, Coronet Magazine. The untitled quiz (Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Calling?) simply consists of Paul, alone in a studio, making calls and playing records. The contestants on the other end of the phone are not wired through so Paul literally holds the program on his own. It's good fun, and Winchell's ventriloquism skills are finally in full bloom here. Since it was transcribed, it seems that someone at WOR may have intended to syndicate the little show, although I wonder if it ever did play outside NYC.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Breaking Wynn

For your entertainment and edification, here is the February 5, 1945 episode of Happy Island starring Ed Wynn. As you'll notice, this particular episode sounds like a decidedly average mid-40s radio comedy. Ed is just plain "Bubbles" rather than "King Bubbles", there's absolutely no mention of Happy Island, and there's nothing particularly fantasy-like about the plot (Bubbles is made warden of "the State Prison"). If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that this conceptual, and no doubt budgetary, streamlining was a last-ditch effort to save the show. Good fun, nonetheless, and keep an ear out for a very young Jim Backus who plays at least three roles in this episode, including one who is a definite forerunner of Thurston Howell III.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Gone With the Wynn

January, 1945. This entertaining little puff piece is not advance publicity for Ed Wynn's Happy Island series for Borden's Milk. Happy Island had already been on the air for five months. This article, which I'm sure wasn't penned by Wynn although it reads as though the specifics might have been taken from an interview (or maybe Ed's filing cabinet), was an attempt to drum up interest in a failing program. Happy Island was cancelled the following month and with it went Wynn's radio career. As late as 1944, in the midst of the horrors of WWII, Ed, God bless him, was trying valiantly to keep good-natured fantasy alive. A vaudevillian through and through, Wynn never became comfortable with the concept of "the theater of the mind"; from the beginning, he needed props and full makeup in order to maintain his focus and stay within his element. None of his previous series were as elaborately staged as Happy Island, a program that featured the cast in full costume along with sets, lighting, and special effects. The photos accompanying the article, which were probably taken in Ed's apartment (NY or LA? Does anyone know?), are charming and I have to imagine that the broadcasts must have been a blast to see in person. But all of this additional effort meant absolutely nothing, of course, to listeners at home, and one can presume what the brass at ABC felt about paying for all of Happy Island's production frills when comics like Bob Hope and Jack Benny were content to stand in front of a microphone on a stage and just talk. Not that that would have helped Ed Wynn. In the age of Abbott and Costello, Wynn's lighthearted whimsy was soundly rejected by an increasingly cynical public. There was little room in radio (or elsewhere for that matter) in 1945 for a vaudeville clown who felt that "getting a laugh at the expense of another person is mean and unfair."

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More Further Adventures of Wheeler and Woolsey

More Film Fun madness from 1939. I simply can't imagine Bob delivering a line like "Coo! That bad lad wants blowing up!"

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bert Wheeler and Pat Boone: Together At Last!

Bert Wheeler makes a guest appearance on the Pat Boone Chevy Showroom. His material here is fresh and very funny. I think this clip dates from 1958. If anyone knows for sure, let me know so I can update the tags on the YouTube file.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Further Adventures of Wheeler and Woolsey

Courtesy of Geoff's copy of the 1939 Film Fun Annual. Wacky hi-jinx ensue when Bert and Bob get a hold of one of those air-tight rubber horse costumes the kids are so crazy about these days. And, dear LORD!! What the heck is Bob doing to Bert's head in the banner there?? OUCH!!
And I thought the Martin and Lewis feud was vicious!

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Monday, April 02, 2007


by Geoff Collins

By one of those strange firks of quate, Kevin's article on the virtues and vices of Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin' has more or less coincided with this neglected classic's long-overdue release on DVD in the UK. Readers may recall that we at the Third Banana have been lamenting its unavailability for many a moon, but in a quiet, unassuming way: "WHEN WILL THE BASTARDS WHO OWN THE RIGHTS RELEASE IT ON DVD???" - that sort of thing. Presumably the legendary crazy-com has been frozen in the same type of legal tangle that kept Animal Crackers out of sight for forty years (a recent Daily Telegraph appraisal of Hellzapoppin' calls it "almost a lost film"). But now, thanks to Hollywood Classics Ltd., Second Sight Films Ltd., and the bastards we castigated earlier (thanks guys; I take it all back), Hellzapoppin' is back - in the UK at least - in a lovely clean print.

Yet as Kevin points out, Ole and Chic do hardly anything in their own film. There are quite a few good musical numbers - as you would expect from any early 40s Universal movie that doesn't include monsters - and a supremely cool jazz interlude from Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and the Duke's chubby cornettist Rex Stewart; but most of the original, ground-breaking comedy comes from the supporting cast. Actually, let's be honest: Chic and Ole are the supporting cast, so what we have is a movie about making a movie of Hellzapoppin'. As Kevin has also noted, 75 minutes of plotless gags from the stage show would get awfully tiresome on film, and wouldn't make for an effective 40s movie. You get the feeling that the argument on-screen between Chic, Ole and "director" Richard Lane was at some point played out for real in the Universal front office:
Chic: Listen, buddy, for three years we did Hellzapoppin' on Broadway, and that's the way we want it on the screen.

Lane: This is Hollywood. We change everything here - we got to!

Ole and Chic: Why???

Lane (exasperated): Listen to the story!!!

Chic's beautifully resigned, disgusted expression was probably glimpsed in the front office, too. The boys have to accept that in order to make Hellzapoppin' work as a movie, compromises have to be made; and we must be grateful, Kevin, that Olsen and Johnson did have Nat Perrin (Duck Soup, Roman Scandals) to adapt their Broadway gag-fest for the screen, and not, say, Irving Brecher (At the Circus, Go West). So the love story's there, but it's quirkily undermined and sent-up. It's certainly true that the many this-is-a-movie special-effects gags work much better than all that stuff transported from the stage version ("Oscar!" "Mrs. Jones!"); and I have no quibbles (or qualms, or cumquats) with the "official" supporting comedians. We all love Shemp; and unlike Kevin, I do have a lot of time for Martha Raye. This is probably her best effort, along with Keep 'Em Flying (for which I have an irrational fondness, probably because Bud and Lou both get the girl); but the real star, let's not make any mistake here, is Hugh Herbert.

By the time the cameras rolled on Hellzapoppin' in late '41, Hugh was fifty-four years old. He'd been around Hollywood for years with his fluttery hands and his high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo giggling, brightening up the product of Warner Bros. such as Dames, Colleen, and an oddity called The Merry Wives of Reno in which he has a pet sheep that follows him about. Hugh was a supporting comic at Warners and, much later, a star of Columbia two-reelers, but Universal gave him some good opportunities, particularly his multi-role showcase in La Conga Nights and, of course, Hellzapoppin', where he keeps a-poppin' up all over the place in a succession of wild and surreal sight gags. The director H. C. Potter must have had a soft spot for Hughie; all his gags are beautifully crafted, specifically a special-effects masterpiece where he repeatedly appears from behind a tree, each time in a different costume, to substantiate his claim that he's a Master of Disguise ("Don't ask me how I do it, folks! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!"). He's a detective and also a magician, which he also proves by swiftly and nonchalently pulling a small rabbit from his coat and dropping it into a nearby open drawer. ("I used to make guinea pigs disappear by the thousands - I often wonder what became of 'em!") He's within the film but has a pleasant tendency to ignore the fourth wall and address the viewers directly, sometimes peeping out from behind a curtain ("Terrible way to make a living!") or otherwise just wandering into it, as in this much-quoted example:
Robert Paige: Oh. Hello.

Jane Frazee: Can I help ?

Hugh: (interrupts them) Certainly you can, certainly you can. (to Jane) Make him fall in love with you. Make everybody happy - you, and you (turns and points at people in the audience) and y.... hoo hoo! and you! Hello mom! (waves at her) I'll be home for supper - have meat! Hoo hoo hoo!

All this is underplayed and somehow believable; he's not quite on the same planet as us - he's the Ralph Richardson of comedy.

Thanks to Hugh, and all the other inspired elements at work here, Hellzapoppin' qualifies as the seminal 'forties crazy comedy. In the opinion of some critics, including our revered Leonard Maltin, it could have gone a lot further; but who would have sat through it. As we've seen, one of the most glorious running in-jokes is Ole and Chic's appalled reaction to Universal's mauling of their beloved stage classic; it's all true - yet it plays well. There are some regrets: we'd just like to see more of what Olsen and Johnson could do. Their subsequent movies (which I'll admit I haven't seen) are merely retreads with occasional great moments, attempts to cash in on their one big success. (Nowadays they'd just knock out blatant sequels - Hellzapoppin' 2, 3 and 4) In all of these, Ole and Chic are pushed into the background again, as if Universal didn't have the confidence to feature them properly in their own movies. After See My Lawyer in 1945, they gave up. Pity.

As for Hugh Herbert, nobody had the confidence to star him in feature films either, but Hellzapoppin' brought out the very best in him and defined his persona forever. Another regret: that his Columbia shorts are just cheaper versions of the mini-farces Leon Errol was turning out at RKO. But he kept busy and was evidently much-loved.

Due to its internal compromises and its conflict of zaniness versus conservatism, Hellzapoppin' will always divide opinion. Me? I love it - because it catches its time period so well. This important movie - and possibly also the 1948 London stage version - led the way to the Goons, Monty Python and alternative comedy. And now it's available!!! See it soon, folks. Hoo hoo hoo!

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