Monday, July 14, 2008

Frankly Disgusting

by Geoff Collins

What could possibly follow The Jitters for sheer comic verve and alcoholic excess? Frank Randle's woozy antics on a staircase make a tidy trilogy with the recently-shown efforts of our other boozed Bananas Sid Field and Leon Errol; but in Frank's case critical opinion has always been a lot harsher. In my native England the local Mancunian comedies of John E. Blakeley are still regarded with almost universal contempt. Dreary, hellishly long and poorly constructed, obviously aimed at the most basic of Northern working-class audiences, they are seen as comedy-for-idiots. To some extent this is true: Blakeley's grasp of film technique was rudimentary and he failed to bring out anything like the best in run-of-the-mill comics like Jewel and Warriss. But with his top star, the criminally-deranged Lancashire maverick Frank Randle, such things hardly mattered. Nobody was going to tell Randle what to do - ever; so if you put him in front of a camera he'd always do exactly what he pleased anyway. The films made a fortune, the audiences fell out of their seats, and everyone was happy. Who needs critics?

We have three extracts for you this time, and in turn they highlight each of feral Frank's basic needs and interests : money, booze, sex. Somewhere On Leave was Randle's third film. By 1942 he'd bludgeoned his way to top billing over chubby Harry Korris, and rightly so. The amiable Korris may have been a hit on radio with his Happidrome show but he was a drone on film, languorously reciting his lines over the top of the camera, and a bit too fond of his catchphrase "Eee, if ever a man suffered!" Frank didn't need him and neither do we. He's accompanied here by squeaky-voiced charmless runt Robby Vincent ("Enoch"), easily the least-talented comedian of all time, and monocled toff Dan Young, probably the least appreciated. In this surprisingly coherent routine, Frank demonstrates exactly how much respect he has for class authority and military discipline!

Our comedic glug-glugs handled their offscreen drinking in different ways. Jimmy James was a teetotaller; Leon Errol was professional enough to negotiate a scarily-busy career involving vaudeville, Broadway, 160 movies and some early television; Sid Field let it take hold and was dead at forty-five. Frank Randle used alcohol as rocket fuel. By all accounts he was the same offstage as on, and by his mid-fifties his stubborn irrationality and outbursts of disproportionate violence had rendered him unemployable. Thank God he still had the comedy inside him, otherwise the managements would never have tolerated him for as long as they did.

Our second clip, and it's time for Frank to have a bath and go to bed, an easy enough activity, one would imagine. Apart from a couple of brief, unnecessary cutaways to comic dude Dan Young - who often seems just as bewildered and pie-eyed as Frank - this is a one-man show worthy of (dare I say it?) the daddy of all drunk-on-a-staircase turns, Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. Part of this sequence appears on the video Jokes That Won the War, in which host Roy Hudd gleefully says of Randle: "He was a Society Entertainer!"

Frank Randle was a pretty good dancer too, as he's willing to demonstrate and describe (!) in our final clip, cheekily belching, spitting and sneaking a direct Anglo-Saxon oath past the censors. He couldn't have cared less; if they cut it out, so what? And they didn't!

We apologise for the jumpy nature of the picture during this sequence. Alan and Jennie did their best in transfering the movie from an ancient videotape every bit as wilful and decrepit as Frank Randle himself, and it just wouldn't behave. Why didn't they invent DVDs in 1895?

Yet in spite of all its inadequacies in terms of script, acting and direction (we've spared you the romantic sub-plot and boy, should you be grateful for this!) we think you'll agree that Somewhere On Leave looks superb, thanks to the luminescent cinematography of Geoffrey Faithfull; and it's the most representative showcase for the jaw-dropping crudities of its star Frank Randle, a drunken lunatic who just happened to be a wonderful comedian.

Leon Errol is Rubberlegs, and Bert Lahr is the Cowardly Lion. To us at the Third Banana, Eddie Cantor (bless him) is the Whiny Bitch; and Frank Randle is the Jitter Bugger.

You realise, of course, not that this means war, but that your devoted team at the Banana could easily just yap on about Stan and Ollie, or the Stooges; but what would that achieve? A lot more readers, undoubtedly, but it's never been our brief to go for - as John Lahr put it (describing Berle and Jerry Lewis) - sloppy, vulgar popularity. So much outstanding comedy is being overlooked as audiences prefer the soft option. I could say the soft and smelly option, and I will. Bill Fields, Keaton, the Marxes, they're all timeless comedians, we all know that. But the same can be said of Joe Cook, Ed Wynn, Sid Field, Arthur Askey... and the Lion, the Bitch and the Jitter Bugger (who's probably sleeping it off in the Wardrobe).

The Forest of Comedy is endless. Please, dear readers, don't restrict yourself to one small part of it.

End of rant. Thank you. BUUURRRPPPP!!!


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