Sunday, July 22, 2007

"... It's no good that way!"

I've said it before but it warrants saying again: Joe Cook was the most likable and versatile comic of the 1930s and it's a pity that his film career was so brief. Cook was tragically debilitated by young-onset Parkinson's, but not before his film career had already petered out with the release of Arizona Mahoney for Paramount in 1936 (which I still have yet to see). Cook, a creature of the stage, apparently had no particular love for film, doing little to pursue a Hollywood career. His real interests outside theater lay in live radio which similarly afforded him a degree of spontaneity that film couldn't provide. But Joe Cook on radio, as skilled with words as he was, was still half of a performer, and listening to transcriptions of Cook's appearances as host of Shell Chateau makes it very apparent that, much like Ed Wynn, he was playing to the studio audience and not the listeners. Cook, who was otherwise very meticulous in his attempts to shore up his legacy as a performer, treated film off-handedly after Rain or Shine, one of the best early talking feature comedies and a record of both his greatest Broadway success and his numerous talents, failed to generate a career in features. His generally funny Educational shorts were treated in much the same way as Clark and McCullough's RKO series; less as a means to an end than a way to publicize himself and pick up some money between theatrical gigs. Cook's entire career is a series of unfortunate "what ifs", not so much a matter of poor management, but of poor timing and missed opportunities. By all rights, he could have started much earlier. A 1925 Educational Kinograms newsreel, embedded below, shows Joe in his vaudeville prime, a masterful juggler and mimic whose personality comes across with full force despite the absence of sound. Cook clearly had the makings of a top-flight silent comedian, but did it ever cross anyone's mind? And if it had, did Joe simply refuse the offer? What if Cook had signed with a studio other than cash-strapped third-tier Columbia to make his feature debut? Would Paramount or Warners have been able to provide Cook the PR support and guidance he needed to make his Hollywood career a success? Misfortune even seems to have dogged his legacy; his estate, including hundreds of radio transcriptions and scrapbooks was scattered to the winds on Ebay in 2003-04, making a comprehensive biography extremely unlikely. Still, I'm hugely grateful for what does exist, and while I must forever remain greedy for more, Cook is still better and more thoroughly represented in film than many other major talents.

Joe Cook appears in the final item in this 1925 Educational newsreel.

Joe completely bamboozles Tom "IPTBI" Howard in this scene from Rain or Shine (1930).

Rain or Shine. A mustard stain on Tom Howard's vest reminds Joe of an important life lesson from his childhood.

The Greatest Man in America! Joe's formidable juggling skills were documented repeatedly, but this is the only footage I've seen of his balancing and wire-walking abilities. Dave Chasen, later of Chasen's Restaurant fame, plays stooge for Joe in this sequence. He's rather like a less-subtle, talking Harpo Marx.

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