Friday, May 04, 2007

Love and Nighties

by Kevin Kusinitz

It’s no secret that the ringmaster of this site is a major Clark & McCullough aficionado. Although Aaron has freely admitted that C&McC are an acquired taste and boast a less-than-perfect resume, he nonetheless admires the sheer energy and anarchy they put into their work. If they’re playing political advisers, they have no problem slamming a desk drawer into their client’s crotch. Invited to a party under false pretenses, Bobby wrestles a guest to the ground for no good reason. Chaos for the sake of chaos is their M.O.

Or so I gather. The biggest problem with assessing C&McC has been the near-unavailability of their work. Movie fans have had to rely on mavens like Aaron or Leonard Maltin for the lowdown. So when I started burning my way-too vast VHS library to DVD – we’re talking a collection going back over 20 years – I was delighted to discover two C&McC shorts: Love & Hisses and The Gay Nighties. Not having seen them since I originally taped them off PBS in the ‘80s, I couldn’t remember what I thought of them the first go ‘round. So I watched them, along with the short Aaron posted the other day, In a Pig’s Eye. And I still don’t know what to make of them… other than that they possess, well, energy and anarchy. Maybe a little too much of both.

In fact, as I watched Love & Hisses, I recalled a friend’s comment upon watching it with me the first time: “Why are they acting that way? What’s their motivation?” As if they were supposed to huddle with Lee Strasberg between takes. He also had a typical complaint about Bobby Clark: “He’s too much like Groucho.” (I give Bobby a pass on that one – vaudeville was lousy with cigar-smoking, fast-talking comics.) My friend didn’t bother with The Gay Nighties: Clark & McCullough had proven a grave disappointment.

Along with the anarchy, there’s also a predilection, it appears, toward stories that hinge on one, ridiculous plot point – a sleepwalking countess, a guy positively orgasmic over watermelons, a pig addicted to mints. Monte Collins, the guy with the flexible scalp, is a regular in their movies as well. Bobby’s line, “File this for future reference” seems to be a running gag, as does Paul McCullough’s nasal laugh. Which brings up something else. Of the three shorts I’ve seen, Love & Hisses is the only one where McCullough has more than a handful of lines. The other two, where he does little more than chuckle appreciatively at his partner’s jokes, feature a writing credit by Bobby Clark. Coincidence?

Paul’s laughter during Love & Hisses feels like cues to the audience. Other than one or two risqué bits of dialogue with a maid, the boys seem to be relying on mania alone to justify two reels of film. I understand what one of their directors meant when he said their vibrancy on the soundstage didn’t translate to film. Indeed, I got the feeling that it would’ve played pretty well in a Broadway farce, even with the same material – watching this lunacy live would’ve been literally breathtaking. No wonder heavyweights like George S. Kaufmann and the Gershwins worked with these guys: they sold the material as if working on 200% commission. I just wasn’t sure I was in a buying mood.

So I approached The Gay Nighties with trepidation. Aaron warned me via e-mail that this was one of their weakest shorts. Bobby’s reading of the line “Couldn’t they have used bows and arrows?!” exemplified, he told me, the mediocrity of the whole enterprise. Still, I decided to view it along with my wife and 11 year-old daughter. (The latter is a Laurel & Hardy fan and would appreciate the appearance of James Finlayson.) This proved to be a wise move, because the presence of an audience can shift one’s perception of a comedy. In other words, we laughed. Silly laughter, perhaps, along the lines of I can’t believe that desk-drawer in the crotch bit, but laughter nonetheless. Bobby Clark would’ve understood.

The story – C&McC frame a political rival by trying to photograph him with a woman other than his wife – lends itself to a few more risqué bits, including Bobby actually trying to get in bed with the aforementioned countess. (The wife is always astonished by pre-Code situations like this.) Paul gets to play a pivotal role for a change, dressing up in Bo-Peep drag in order to entice Finlayson. The jokes never stop, the sight gags get more outlandish, so by the time Bobby utters his deathless “bows and arrows” line, my wife, daughter and I didn’t just laugh, but laughed out loud. Like slapping the armrest of the couch loud. My wife even repeated the line, out of the blue, the next day. Take that, Mr. Clark & McCullough fan!

Still, I wonder: is The Gay Nighties the exception to the Clark & McCullough oeuvre? I know it’s unfair to judge a comedy team’s output by just three movies. I mean, imagine someone unfamiliar with Laurel & Hardy watching only Berth Marks, Twice Two and The Big Noise. Luckily for us, several of their movies are for sale at the Columbia Shorts Department. However, considering their hit/miss ratio so far, I think I’m going to wait for them to be posted on YouTube by some rabid fan. And you know who you are.

File that for future reference.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought Gay Nighties was one of their BETTER shorts. It and Oder in the Court get the most favorable audience reactions. I mean, compare those to Fits in a Fiddle for laugh quotient!

11:28 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I still think it's iffy.. but apparently it works with a crowd. Who am I to argue? Fits in a Fiddle is an abomination. I can't believe Sam White had the guts to declare it superior to the Mark Sandrich C&McCs!

3:14 PM  

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