Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rubberlegs

by Geoff Collins

"Never mind who! I know who! You know you can't boombazzle me - I mean, you can't bamboozle me! Huh! I've been boozled before!"

Leon Errol is jealous. His wife's just won a dance contest with the instructor Maurice (pronounced Morr-eece) and Leon's decided to visit the dancing academy and give Maurice a pop on the nose: "You can't drag our good game in the nutter!" During the next fifteen minutes of his definitive 1938 RKO short The Jitters, Leon manages to embrace all known human failings, including drunkenness. Especially drunkenness. He's been boozled before. Bill Robinson may have been "Bojangles", with his wonderful stairway dance, but Leon Errol - "Rubberlegs" - was equally legendary, the inspiration for many a comic drunk on a staircase. We've already seen Sid Field in London Town, and we'll eventually see Frank Randle in Somewhere On Leave; and those fine English top-hatted topers Jimmy James and Freddie Frinton were just as hilariously inaccurate in their attempts to smoke the broken-in-half cigarette. In Germany, the TV recording of Freddie Frinton's "Dinner For One" sketch is transmitted every New Year's Eve, so although he's a footnote in the UK, to the Germans he's an icon. It's worth the trip!

Leon Errol was born in Sydney in 1881, and in his teens he abandoned a medical career for the stage. By 1910 he was in New York, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies with his portrayal of the comprehensively refreshed man-about-town, staggering all over the stage with balletic grace yet speaking with suspiciously precise emphasis in an unconvincing attempt to prove his sobriety. "Leon has not had our good fortune" wrote Bill Fields to Ed Wynn in 1938, and while this may now be true in terms of posterity's opinion, during a long career Leon was always fantastically busy. From 1924 onwards he appeared in over sixty feature films and a hundred starring shorts - as well as running the Black Pussy on Santa Monica Boulevard, a cafe immortalized (in necessarily bowdlerized form) in The Bank Dick. Unlike his fellow Aussies Bevan and Pollard he didn't spend his final years in comical-cockney bit parts, although his Britishness was most useful in his portrayal of Lord Epping in the Mexican Spitfire series. Leon may have been a supporting actor in features, but in two-reelers he was a Star Turn.

In fact the eighteen-minute format was perfect for him. Most of his shorts were made at RKO, economical but classy-looking little farces in which shifty-eyed Leon runs around trying to cover up some indiscretion involving alcoholic excess and a blonde or two. Inevitably, despite his hypocritical blusterings, he comes unstuck and the truth is revealed, which serves him right as he's invariably dead guilty.

With such a rigorous schedule, inspiration must have flagged occasionally, which is probably why Leon's team decided to build a two-reeler around one of his old Follies routines. Leon lurches into the dancing school and is mistaken for their top instructor, resulting in a roomful of lovely young women slavishly following his every step. Contrived? Absolutely. But there's so much to enjoy here. The supporting cast: dizzy Vivian Tobin as Leon's wife; "Edgar Kennedy's lazy brother-in-law" Jack Rice as the maitre d'; Bobby Barber in a tiny part as the waiter; and especially Richard Lane, that incisive straightman for so many comedians. He feeds Leon beautifully and he's clearly enjoying every minute.

But above all, we can see the daddy of all stage and screen drunks, Leon Errol, showing us absolutely everything he did best within the space of eighteen minutes. It's a master class in comedy.

Readers, it gives me great pleasure to say, on behalf of the Third Banana team: we give you The Jitters!


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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geoff,

What a service you've performed. You've given the world a good look at one of the funniest two reelers in the history of the form. I saw this film on local New York Television with my older brother on a Sunday afternoon when the feature we were watching ended early. We were mere nippers and The Jitters hit us by complete surprise. We laughed with the inhibition usually associated with chimpanzees. It was a life changing incident in that I was introduced to someone I'd never seen before, and it led me to instantly become a Leon Errol watcher. My personal other favorites are his turns as Lord Epping in the Mexican Spitfire films. He's a sadly overlooked diamond in the classic film comedian rough (and I DO mean rough). He's less a third banana as he is a star in the minors.

Love your stuff....keep it coming.

Best,
Nick

4:21 PM  
Blogger Hal said...

Oh, wow, I'm readying a couple of the MEXICAN SPITFIRE series for review on my blog!

I loved Errol's comedy shorts and I really miss them; they seem to have disappeared from every station. I thought Errol's RKO two reelers were better than Edgar Kennedy's, myself. Really glad to see this classic posted here!

He and Lupe Velez were a superb team too in the SPITFIRE's. Yeah, they're all pretty much the same movie, 8 times in a row, but damned if the two performers don't make every single one of them funny.

3:31 AM  
Blogger THE PHANTOM OF THE LANDFILL said...

I agree that Errol is an unsung genius, and his RKO shorts are fantastic. VCI put out a great collection of the shorts on DVD called "Leon Errol Two-Reeler Collection" - I've seen it sold for betweeen $7 and $19 (I was fortunate to get one a few years ago for the $7 price from either movieswithasmile.com or deepdiscountdvd.com - can't remember which). While his "rubber leg" routine is of historic nature, it is also very specific and stands apart from his shorts; to understand the full spectrum of Errol was capable of, I highly recommend viewing his other shorts, too. And any of the "Mexican Spitfire" or "Joe Palooka" movies he was in, and notably his great supporting role in one of the better Abbott & Costello larks, "The Noose Hangs High."

Another note on the shorts: if I was married to Dorothy Granger (Leon's most frequent on-screen wife), I certainly wouldn't be looking to carouse! Granger is my favorite actress from Hollywood's golden age of comedy - check out her credits on imdb.com and see how many classic comedians she worked with. She not only was beautiful, she uncannily seemed to get more gorgeous with age, and her comic timing got better and better as well. She held her own against the greats! :)

10:48 AM  
Blogger paul etcheverry said...

Thanks for posting this, a great piece by an underrated comic.

I really like what I've seen of the comedy shorts Leon made in 1934-1935 for Columbia. While not spotlighting Errol's mastery of physical comedy as "The Jitters" does, "Honeymoon Bridge" and "One Too Many" are still very funny, original, startling and edgy.

I've always wanted to see the 1933 short "Three Little Swigs", just for the title!

9:04 PM  

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