Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bill and Ben, the Taxi Men

by Geoff Collins

"All in all, The Taxi Boys was a disaster," writes Bishop Len Maltin in The Great Movie Shorts. Elsewhere, he calls this 1932-33 Hal Roach series "one of the greatest catastrophes in Roach's history". Hang on a minute, Len, we're only talking about some two-reel comedies here; nothing exploded or hit an iceberg. But we must be fair to the Bishop; he was only in his early twenties when he wrote this judgment, and his book is a superb work, surely the starting point for all students of neglected comedy. We owe him a huge debt. Thank you, your Grace.

Unfortunately though, Mr. Maltin's appraisal of the Taxi Boys has become the Standard Opinion, giving subsequent researchers the misguided notion that the entire series is a horrendous shambles, with the inevitable consequence that these films are still scratchy, unloved and unrestored. But they were made by the Hal Roach studio, the Lot of Fun, at its peak. Sure, Roach was mostly interested in getting the Product out, but he was willing to try new styles of comedy - and occasionally revisited old styles in order to give them a fresh approach.

This wasn't always easy. To appreciate the desperation of the Roach crew as they struggled to find a winning formula, it's necessary to watch the shorts in chronological order; and, if we can ignore the webmaster's strange fixation with Our Gang, is most useful with its complete Roachography which includes many exact production dates.

The first short in the series, Thundering Taxis, was held back for a year before release. [The available print, a Film Classics reissue, is titled "Thundering Taxi". Was this an in-joke at Film Classics, reducing plural titles to singular? They did it with "Chicken Come Home" and "Man O'War"; I'm surprised we didn't get "That Thar Hill" and "Once One".] Thundering Taxis is a hybrid, a '26 Sennett disguised as a '32 Roach. Despite the reassuring presence of the familiar Roach background music, most of it is obviously shot silent or dubbed, and there are many unRoachy cartoon gags. Why? Because Roach was giving employment to a whole bunch of redundant ex-Sennett veterans. Del Lord had directed the Taxi Driver series at Sennett in '28 and this is an obvious retread. Bud Jamison is the irascible "Chief" - couldn't they get Ford Sterling? - and one of the drivers is Billy Bevan, clean-shaven but still recognizably squat and partridge-like. I have a soft spot for Billy Bevan; he was so ubiquitous in those Robert Youngson compilations, and things like Comedy Capers and Mad Movies, that many people of my generation grew up thinking he was one of the major players. He wasn't; but I'm always glad to see him.

There's no attempt at characterization in this movie, and the ridiculous gags are just rammed in, Sennett-like, any old how. To prove it, the film stops dead halfway for the "oyster soup" routine from Bevan's 1926 Wandering Willies. Most of us have seen Billy or Curly or Lou or Shemp perform this material; here the honour goes to Clyde Cook.

This sort of thing clearly wouldn't do at all, so for the next short, What Price Taxi, Bevan was out, replaced by - of all people - Franklin Pangborn, who's first seen in bed with Cook! Billy Gilbert, in his ugly, nasty mode - as in The Chimp - makes his first appearance as a brutish rival taxi driver, but this film is still a pseudo-Sennett, all crazy stunts and chases. You couldn't care less about any of the people in it. Consequently, Strange Innertube introduces us to the "new recruits", Gilbert (far more pleasant now, as a big, naive bumbler, Ollie Hardy's sneezy cousin) and Ben Blue. I have to admit that for a while I just didn't "get" Ben Blue, with his unfocussed eyes, giggling, failed attempts at folding his arms, and odd exclamations such as "Well, I'm a tippetywitchet!"; but Aaron has patiently explained to me that Ben is an Alien Life Form, an extraterrestrial pretending to be a nightclub comic pretending to be a taxi driver. You see, it all makes sense; "Blue" isn't his surname, it's a nickname based on his actual skin colour. He's a genuine tippetywitchet; it's not his catchphrase, it's his excuse!

These changes are most welcome but it's still all a bit Sennetty. For some reason Cook has now vanished (didn't he like being in bed with Pangborn?); and he's been replaced by Charley Rogers as Cook - same moustache, same accent, bit more of a chin. But the Roach boys were still tinkering, and in Hot Spot we finally see Blue and Gilbert as a team, although as Len M. has pointed out, each man is out to get his own laughs. Ben's a "titter titter" and a "rat-a-tat" and Billy's a tad over-fond of his beloved ex-vaudeville sneezing routine. Who cares? It's funny. So in it goes.

Just when you thought it was safe to relax, the series throws us something genuinely unsettling: Ben Blue in drag. A Martian pretending to be a comic pretending to be a taxi driver pretending to be a woman; once seen, never forgotten. This is Bring 'Em Back a Wife (and didn't they love those punny titles?); Gilbert has to pretend to be married in order to keep his job. This is how he deals with the problem.

By now the series had peaked. Wreckety Wrecks has Ben and Billy attempting to bury a "body" (actually a dummy) which eventually gets switched with a sleeping woman; and apart from Ben's great sequence with the slowly-awakening "corpse", where he gradually realizes he's "got three hands" (yes, Stan Laurel refined this in A Chump At Oxford) it's all rather depressing.

December 1932, and Taxi Barons. Gilbert is now "Dutchy" and this characterisation, similar to his persona in The Music Box, gives him a chance to spoof Jack Pearl's Baron Munchausen, as "Baron Von Hasenfeffer" (and Ben is "General Motors"!) It's most notable for a sequence in which Billy accidentally gives a cop the Finger, followed, not quite so accidentally, by Ben. No, Ben, please, don't do it!

That's all, folks. The final "official" Taxi Boys short, Call Her Sausage, has Gus Meins as director instead of Lord, no background music and no taxis. It's about Gilbert's efforts to open his new deli, with Blue as his annoyingly useless assistant, prompting Gilbert to implore "Pleeeease! Don't help me!" Was Mel Brooks taking notes? It's one of Nathan Lane's big laughs in The Producers, but there aren't many laughs here. After this one, they quietly slipped Thundering Taxis into release and moved on to the All-Stars series.

That's not all, folks. We'll leave you on a high note: Taxi For Two. The best! This one has everything: Billy's sneezing, Ben's exclamations ("Well, I'm a snipper snapper!"), Jamison as an intolerant cop, Charlie Hall as a drunk waiting for a streetcar, boomy-voiced shrimp Billy Bletcher, probably the earliest fragment of "Who's On First", beautiful location photography and even a crowd of people watching the filming. A sunny day in Los Angeles, mid-September 1932, captured forever. This is what the Third Banana is all about, a perfect matching of the Sennett-Lord slapstick with the more relaxed character-based Roach approach - and that background music! It's all there, and more. "The Taxi Boys" a disaster? Never!

The Bag's Out of the Cat: Additional Comments from Aaron Neathery

Who would have thunk it? Much like everyone else raised on a steady diet of vitamin-enriched Maltin, I'd fully expected The Taxi Boys to be a calamity, an indelible stain on Roach's supposedly pristine 30s record (which, of course, gave me every reason to track these down and watch them). Instead, this much-maligned little series turned out to be a one-of-a-kind comedy crossroads, fascinating in the extreme for its unique meeting of talents, and much, much funnier than such well-regarded Roach series of the time as, say, the Todd and Pitts shorts. Almost 80 years ago, before sound largely segregated comedians according to their roots as performers, a comedy series that featured nightclub comics, vaudevillians, and silent clowns rubbing shoulders would not have seemed so remarkable. In hindsight, The Taxi Boys is a sound comedy Pangea, bringing together performance and writing/directing styles that would never truly meet again. It's not that they see exactly eye to eye here, but what's not to cherish about the sight of Franklin Pangborn co-starring with Clyde Cook or the very idea of Billy Bevan working sans mustache at The Lot of Fun while the soundtrack plays that glorious Roy Shield music? Just seeing Del Lord's name on a Hal Roach comedy is enough to bend the brain! While the series undeniably has its low points, it's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. And it ain't no disaster!

How it all came about is still a mystery I'd love to uncover. It has long been suggested that the central purpose of the series was to duplicate the success of Laurel and Hardy with Gilbert and Blue, but it seems to me that The Taxi Boys began foremost as a large-scale experiment to develop a new brand of Hal Roach comedy, and something of a works program for recently-canned Sennett vets. That it ultimately became a Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert showcase appears to have been a result of Ben's popularity and the fact that Roach saw an opportunity to groom perpetual supporting player Billy for stardom. While it was obviously in the minds of the writers early on to develop Blue and Gilbert as proper comedy team (as opposed to Cook and Pangborn or Cook and Bevan or Gilbert and Cook), they didn't try to go so far as to actually turn them into Laurel and Hardy. Over the course of the series, Billy Gilbert goes through all of his stock characterizations in an effort to find one that would click; the stuttering oaf, the Dutch oaf, the bullying oaf, the Dutch stuttering oaf, the Dutch bullying sneezing oaf. Meanwhile, Ben Blue goes through varying shades of bizarre. His mannerisms are much more intense and strange in some shorts than in others. In a few, he's almost lucid, and in others he can barely even speak (or stop moving his arms). If Blue resembles Stan Laurel at all, it's due to his, to put it mildly, "otherworldiness".. but unlike Stan's innocent, silent comedy elf, Blue belongs firmly to the Depression-era breed of Broadway and nightclub extraterrestrials whose outsized, impossible personalities were very much in vogue. Also quite unlike Laurel and Hardy, Gilbert and Blue, hams to the bone, consistently perform past each other rather than off each other, and as the series never slows down long enough to develop their team dynamic, it's small wonder their partnership never quite gels (although it comes damn close at times). In any case, I'd be hard-pressed to call the series a "disaster" on any level. Certainly, if The Taxi Boys had been produced by Mack Sennett, I imagine the shorts would be considered late classics from that studio... but as they're Roach shorts that bear only faintly the stamp of that studio, the Taxi Boys are criticized more for what they aren't rather than what they are. I likes 'em. So sue me.

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Blogger East Side said...

My mother's never been a fan of slapstick, but for some reason she always loved Ben Blue. He must have had something special that appealed to her. The few times I've seen him, I've always come away with a feeling of, "What the hell was that?"

7:35 AM  
Blogger paul etcheverry said...

A less twitchy, not nearly as spastic Ben Blue turns up three decades later on a Jack Benny Show as a magician who, you guessed it, confounds and humiliates Jack.

I like an even more disastrous Roach series, the Harry Langdon early talkies.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gus Meins is best known for directing Our Gang and/or Little Rascals. He is a great gentleman but unfortunately, he is no longer living. People were shocked about his premature death. Meins is from Germany. His real name is not Gus Meins, rather Gustav(e) Peter Ludwig Luley.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Mike Wolf said...

The taxi boys were pure comedy entertainment, Gilbert and Blue were funny and the backround scenes of a bygone ers are priceless. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, no but Max Gilbert and Billy Blue are also comic legends and deserve their place in comic history. This was great comedy from Hal Roach, a mix of Max Sennett, our gang, laurel and hardy, they all are here in the taxi boys and the Taxi boys are there in them. Classic comedy from a long lost golden age....also many of the characters you see in the Taxi boys you see in the three stooges and laurel and hardy, comedy feeding off one another, brilliant!!!!!!

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Taxi boys are possibly forgotten today due to the popularity of Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy. The Taxi Boys did not have the same appeal as Our Gang and/or Laurel and Hardy. People were not enthused about them.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Taxi Boys are bourne anew!!

10:32 AM  
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6:46 AM  
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4:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They truly are a comedy disaster. No question!

3:56 PM  

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