Friday, July 11, 2008

Whole Thoughts From A Half-Wit

by Nick Santa Maria

Hello there fellow comedy buffs. It's me, Nick Santa Maria, star of stage, screen, and now, blog. Since Aaron Neathery is a good friend, and since I was originally supposed to be a regular contributor to this blog (although I can't fathom why my bathroom habits would be of anybody's concern), I decided to jump into the fray and put in my 25 cents worth (allowing for inflation). With your indulgence I'm going to supply some recent random thoughts about some of the stuff I've been exposed to of late.

I recently purchased Harry Langdon's Three's a Crowd and The Chaser, now available from KINO. Langdon directed these two features and, in my opinion, did a fine job. There are shots that don't match very well, and there were some harmful cuts made to Three's a Crowd which makes it a bit confusing at moments, but all in all it is much better than I was led to believe. I will say, though, that The Chaser seems more like a bloated two-reeler than a fully fleshed out feature. It resembles Saturday Afternoon in substance, but it veers in that Harry is really a carouser. And he really seems to have some sexual appeal to the women in this film. Regardless of content (these films have been written about to death), I always welcome a chance to watch Harry. At one point he tries to figure out how to get an egg out of a chicken. It sounds simple, and it is, but in Harry's hands it's hilarious. He is absolutely fascinating. There is nothing like him. Nothing. There is a scene in The Chaser where Harry believes he drank a glassful of poison when in actuality he has downed a heaping glass of castor oil. He lays down on the kitchen floor and covers himself in a blanket to await his impending death (he's committing suicide). He waits. And he waits. And he waits. He waits for what seems like a freakin' hour! Then he jumps up with the realization that he desperately needs to be in a bathroom, bolting up the stairs in a panic. I've never seen anything like it. No wonder his audience abandoned him. I can picture a table of silent comedians, who'd made it successfully into the sound era, shaking their heads and saying, "Poor Harry... I told him to play to the audience. But no. He had to have his own way. He was too different!". And that was the trouble. There was nobody like Langdon. And I believe that he confused the hell out of audiences back then. Hell, he confuses them now. What a brave, talented, sad little artist.

I've become addicted to What's My Line. I set my DVR to record it every night off of the Game Show Network. And as I watch everyday I ask myself the same question, "When did we all get so stupid?". This is sophisticated, witty, and multi-syllabic entertainment at it's best. The people are so polite and nice to one another. It's such a far cry from today's TV world where the comedy comes from the pleasure of humiliating people. Where else can one see Fred Allen on a semi-regular basis on the wasteland he wrote so eloquently about, TV? As a part of the panel (Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, and Dorothy Kilgallen) Allen seems uncomfortable and unable to give full rein to his wit. He begins many a joke but is forced to pull back as if he was interrupting someone at a dinner party. When he does get the spotlight he is very, very funny. This was Allen's last regular gig in a medium that held little use for him. He seems a bit tired and a bit befuddled, but he's always sardonic and funny. And when Fred Allen doesn't assume the number two chair position, Steve Allen is there in his place (no relation, other than the great wit). Watching this ancient game show has led me to re-assess the talented Mr. Allen. Steve Allen was so ubiquitous in my youth that I admit to taking him for granted. Now I see why I was drawn to him in the first place. He's a master wit of the first order. (I had the pleasure of auditioning for him once back in 1983. He was producing a small production of his show, Sammy Glick is Alive and Sick. Coincidentally, I did an imitation of Fred Allen during my piece and made him laugh. I didn't get the job, though, and he hired an upstart by the name of Bill Maher instead.) And let me tell you, the mystery guests alone are worth watching for. I don't think I can remember seeing Herbert Marshall, Ed Wynn, Edgar Bergen, Liz Taylor, and Bob Hope all in one week....on a game show! I've already gotten a few of my friends hooked , and if you start to watch you'll be hooked, too.

I've recently discover Big Hearted Arthur Askey. TCM showed three of his films back to back to back and I'm now a fan. What an irreverent little pain in the arse. He's like a good natured pitbull. His modus operandi in relation to the other characters in the films seems to be, "LOVE ME OR I'LL BADGER YOU INTO THE GROUND!". I thought Groucho, Robert Woolsey, and others of that ilk were brazen and unyielding... well, Arthur gives them all a run for their money. He's tiny, he's kind of feminine and he's a riot. He works with a "partner" who goes by the name of Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. I remember my dear second wife saying to me once, after watching an Abbott and Costello film, "Abbott doesn't do anything. Lou's the whole show.". Well, despite her totally uninformed opinion, it made me realize that if Lou Costello were living in England in the 40's Abbott would have been in the same boat as "Stinky" Murdoch, or Jerry Desmonde (who apparently died penniless and alone). Murdoch is an equal partner to Askey in no uncertain terms. In fact they would have worked beautifully as an official team. Murdoch is tall and handsome where Askey is short and goofy looking... Murdoch can get the girl, play straight, and even act... Askey is more freakish by nature. What was with English comedy performers? Will Hay dumped Moffatt and Marriott and paid dearly. Tony Hancock dumped Sid James and Kenneth Williams and we all know where Mr. Hancock ended. So, it is with slight discomfort that I watch the Askey films, but not enough to consider the films anything but delightful. If you get the chance check out, Band Waggon, The Ghost Train, and Charley's Big Hearted Aunt, by all means do.

I was recently having a meal with the still lovely Ann Jeffries, and knowing full well that she was not only the best Tess Trueheart in the movies, and co-star to Lugosi and Atwill, not mention star of the Topper TV series, but she worked in a few films with those Third Banana wannabes, Brown and Carney! So, being me, they were the first ones I wanted to know about. Well, as expected, she didn't have much to say other than, "They were very nice, and very talented, but they weren't a team. We knew it, they knew it, and the audiences knew it.". It reminded me of the time I approached AMC's long ago host, Bob Dorian (back when AMC almost rivaled TCM as a classic film station). The first thing I asked him was, "Why don't you show more Wheeler and Woolsey movies?". He looked at me like I had just landed from the planet Zoomar, and he said, "You like them?". I answered in the affirmative and he replied, "Then there must be something very wrong with you.". I guess he didn't collect their films.

Oh... and if you dig really hip and intelligent comedy, give a listen to Aaron Neathery's Electromatic Radio. It's brilliantly funny.

That's all for now. I'm going to watch What's My Line. I wonder who the mystery guest will be? Wally Brown, perhaps?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops, I managed to refer to "Richard "Stinker" Murdoch as "Stinky". I guess I had Joe Besser on the brain...and believe me, that's NOT SO HAAAAARD to do.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Eric Stott said...

Someone on Youtube has put up some audio from The Bandwaggon (the radio show) and one sequence (nicely placed against footage from the film) is a gem. Askey and Murdoch are attempting to fill out their Inland Revenue form. Every time Askey makes an inkblot (often) he makes it "into a little man"

4:33 PM  
Blogger Brian Nelson said...

Hi Nick! You're spot-on about Harry Langdon. My wife and I love him, and I daresay sound ramped up the weirdness quotient in him! Those Roach shorts, which kill us, prove it! Juse imagine him in Pee-Wee's Playhouse, he'd be right at home!

Although I missed the Askey triple-feature on TCM (@#$% 12-year-old VCR!), I have seen BAND WAGGON and I THANK YOU on DVD. He's a blast, kinda like Woolsey after 10 Red Bulls! His autobiography, BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES, makes a fun read, too.


8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was surprised to find Askey movies on TCM!Are they showing any other British variety comedian's films? MGM must have been thrown them as part of a package(you can have the Hitchcocks if you also take........)

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Brian Paige said...

You know, as someone who first saw W & W movies on old school AMC in the early 90s I have to admit reading that Bob Dorian thinks they suck saddens me. I wonder if Dorian even realizes that AMC basically started the revival of interest in W & W by showing their movies as filler programming?

9:13 PM  

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