Friday, November 25, 2005

"That may not be funny, but it's clean!"

Speaking as a fan of Python, I think Arthur Askey is a riot, and I'm not so sure he's completely incompatible with the post-modern comedy aesthetic. Breaking the fourth wall is one of those things that becomes new again if you wait long enough. For Askey, it was a brilliant way to transcend his own material. Talk about your safety nets! There was no gag material so lousy that Askey couldn't rise above it because, like Ted Healy, Arthur Askey's comedy was more about the man than the material. As for his DVD presence, quite a few of his films are available on eBay. The s&h on these things is nearly prohibitive, and you'll need a region-free player (available from fine Korean manufacturers everywhere). It's about time some clever American DVD manufacturer wises up and starts selling these here in the States. A whole new audience awaits Arthur Askey, Will Hay, Moffatt and Marriott, George Formby, and others. Bundle the films two to a DVD with a tag that says "From the country that brought you Monty Python and AbFab" and you can't lose, I tell you! Meanwhile, enjoy this nicely-drawn Arthur Askey comic from the UK comic weekly Radio Fun (1950).

click on the big-hearted thumbnail

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Geoff Collins Salutes Arthur Askey, the Silly Little Man

It should be noted that Arthur Askey is the Silly Little Man, and not Geoff Collins, although maybe I am silly in attempting to evaluate a comedian on whom opinion is divided so strongly. Arthur Askey is brilliant - or incredibly irritating; and sometimes both.

"Walk this way" he says to the television cameraman on a live show from the BBC's White City studios in the 50s; and as the camera tracks him doing the exaggerated bow-legged walk of a cowboy who doesn't realise his horse is missing, he adds: "If I could walk this way I wouldn't need the talcum - I know the gag!" - cutting to the punchline of this very old joke without even bothering to put in the buildup. And all the time he's enjoying himself immensely. No stage fright - he never ever suffered with this dread affliction.

Bob Monkhouse (for whom Arthur was "an immediate lifetime hero"): "He made you realise the fact you were laughing at him was absurd. He was a silly little man, and we're all laughing and you're silly for laughing. And that was part of the double whammy that he used on an audience. So he got away with murder that way.... the great trick he had was: you do a joke, and the audience laughs - or doesn't laugh - and then you MOCK it. Constantly undermining what he was doing - but making it all the funnier."

Arthur Askey: "Now this is where the show picks up! No make-up - only Polyfilla!"

And, on another occasion, during a pantomime version of a Bud and Lou money-changing routine: "You may have seen this done before - but never better!"

September 30, 1939. World War 2 has just started. On BBC radio's Band Waggon, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey and Richard "Stinker" Murdoch are attempting to complete their National Registration forms, or as Arthur calls it "International Refrigeration". Arthur explains that he was named Arthur Mafeking Askey because he was born "on the day after the Battle of Trafalgar".

Not quite true. Arthur Bowden Askey was born on D-Day, although he didn't know it at the time - 'cos he was a baby: June 6, 1900, in Liverpool "the birthplace of so many great comedians" (I put that in inverted commas in case anyone thinks of Ken Dodd - don't get me started on him!!!). After years of concert party and seaside summer shows, along came Band Waggon in 1938 and suddenly Big-Hearted Arthur, this tiny red-headed man, was a huge star; and so was his straightman, tall, upper-class Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. No typical double-act aggression here; these fellows were obviously great pals, Arthur's schoolboy impudence well matched by Dickie's mild but totally false disapproval. Really "Stinker" is just as childish as "Big" - but he feels SOMEONE has to take charge; and their mutual affection is as genuine as Bud and Ches.

For your entertainment and approval, my all-time favourite Big and Stinker moment, from "The Proposal", a recording of a radio broadcast from "somewhere in France" and issued on His Master's Voice ( C 3173 ):

Arthur: Well, that's just it, old boy. I want to propose to the girl and I don't know how to go about it.

Dickie: Well, thank your lucky stars you've confided in me.

Arthur: Why ?

Dickie: Well, don't you know who I am ?

Arthur: I've got a rough idea - you're not the Ozzard of Wiz, are you?

Dickie: I'm Auntie Fanny of Muriel's Paper!!!

Arthur: Ooooohhh Auntie!!! (laughs) I've written to you SEVERAL times! Yes, never mind, I got rid of the blackheads! - I mean, I should worry! [to audience] Nice Tasty Comedeeee!!!

Disgusting - or hilarious? This is the whole point with Arthur Askey: you either love him, or you hate him. Indifference doesn't come into it. Or you haven't heard of him at all - which is why this blog exists, and why he's on it. A few years ago Pete Waterman, a devoted fan of Arthur's, bought up the video rights to all of Arthur's movies - so come on Pete, what have you done about it? The marketplace is hardly flooded with Arthur Askey DVDs. No wonder the poor little guy's obscure.

By the early 'forties Arthur and Dickie were well-established as movie stars. Arthur's "silly little songs" - "The Bee" being the immortal one - had featured in the Pathe newsreels for several years, but in 1939 came the film version of Band Waggon, followed by Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt and then, most notably, The Ghost Train, a remake of Arnold Ridley's..... Whoa, there, gentle reader. Enough! This is where we examine the whole point of Arthur Askey. We think he's funny, no question about that - but apart from (and sometimes even including) Stinker, everybody else in the film hates him and wants to kill him because he's so IRRITATING!!! In Arthur's defence it must be said that his adversaries are usually stuffy, pompous and entirely humourless; they deserve everything they get from him, the usual recipe being lots of childish gags, face-pulling, funny walks and an unsolicited song which is greeted with thinly-concealed fury, the total effect in this case being heightened by this movie's claustrophobic one-room set.

Maybe this has infected the opinions of the general public. As I said earlier, people who have heard of Arthur Askey either love him or hate him. This anomaly even extends to his fellow professionals.

Jimmy Grafton: "I remember trying to confine Arthur Askey in terms of sketches, and it was impossible because he was always playing to the camera."

Brian Tesler [television director]: "Arthur was a bit of a pain because... Arthur enjoying the effect of the ad-lib on, not just the audience of course but the studio crew, that Arthur was "over-running Arthur". I never did a show... it didn't matter how many minutes you reduced the material to, in order to allow "spread" for laughs, he still beat you. It was all fun, you know. There's a camera there, and there's a man operating it, and it was his aim in life to be funny about that camera, and about that cameraman, and at the end of a show if he hadn't got the cameraman creased once or twice, then he hadn't really succeeded."

Betty Driver detested Arthur; and she has written about the frustration of appearing with him in stage farces as he persistently ignored the "fourth wall" and addressed countless ad-libs at the audience. All of this is true. He does it in the films; he's never quite inside the movie, and seems to mock the idea of having to say the lines. Frankie Howerd does the same thing; and it's not to everyone's taste.

On the other hand, Arthur's daughter Anthea spoke of many occasions on which she was greeted with great warmth by stage doorkeepers: "Oh we loved your dad here - what a lovely man!" And Arthur was genuinely loved by many of his colleagues, including Cyril Fletcher who referred to him, bearing in mind that Arthur was born in 1900, as "The Turn of the Century". Val Doonican put it more simply: "He was lovely!"

As with all comedy, of course, it's a matter of taste. Aficionados of anything since the Goon Show may find Arthur old-fashioned and corny - and let's face it, those Band Waggon scripts are hardly great literature. Yet Arthur's generation - those to whom he was a cheerful little morale-booster - will find something like Monty Python entirely bleak and joyless, with no heart in it. Neither opinion is "the correct one"; and we could recycle this argument for any comedian you care to name. Arthur was very much of his time - but as late as the 1970s he was still around, as cheeky and irrepressible as ever, and at the very top of his form.

I saw Arthur at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in August 1970 (he announced one of his songs "I sang this in one of my classic British comedies" and then held his nostrils to signify "it stinks") and again at a radio recording of Does the Team Think? four years later. On both occasions he glowed, with warmth, good humour and the sheer joy of living. He was truly a National Treasure.

And you can still see him today wherever his movies are shown (are you reading this, Mr. Waterman?), or on where he's one of the few comedians not unnerved by the lack of a studio audience. He just gets on with it.

Roy Hudd: "It was the blending of the words and the silly movements that went with it - that's what he was a genius at. You sense that Arthur made up these songs as he went along."

But he didn't. He did write some of them, but the majority were composed by Kenneth Blain - and is there any comedian in the world more obscure than Kenneth Blain? He might do the piano accompaniment for some of Arthur's Pathe clips, but apart from this he's completely vanished. Come on, readers, more information please. Kenneth Blain wrote lovely catchy little songs for Arthur, getting ruderies past the censor as in "Chirrup": ("a sort of come and kiss me Willie little bird, what lives up in theee skyeee"). Watch Arthur perform this on Pathe - it's mis-titled "A Pretty Bird" which is a different song altogether: he skips about like an English Eddie Cantor, full of confidence and optimism, the eternal cheeky schoolboy. Entering a bleak, clinical-looking TV studio in the movie of Band Waggon, he says gleefully "Ooohhh, it's the dentist's! Where do we spit?" No other line sums up Arthur Askey better than this.

And if you can't get to see Arthur on film, try, please try, to find a copy of his book Before Your Very Eyes. Like all the best biographies [can I get away with mentioning Cyril Fletcher again?] it's totally honest and you can hear the voice of the author as you read it. As Arthur says in his deliberately badly-spelled, scruffily-handwritten introduction:


And he assures us:


So what do I think of Arthur Askey? Is it admiration or irritation?

You've probably worked it out by now. He was the best.

Arthur Bowden Askey. June 6 1900 - November 16 1982.

Goodbye Arthur. Ay Thang yow!!!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Turkey Day!

Silent comedian Lloyd Hamilton would probably be regarded almost as highly as Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon today if the vast bulk of his filmography hadn't gone up in smoke. Described by Buster Keaton as an "overgrown boy", Hamilton spent years at Kalem as half of the team of Ham and Bud (partner Bud Duncan went on to play Snuffy Smith in two fairly funny wartime Monogram comedies), moved on to Fox (most of whose silent comedies were destroyed in a fire), and then to Educational (yet another fire) where he starred in a long series of shorts directed by Jack White, brother of Jules. In this late 20s Thanksgiving-y publicity shot, Lloyd takes aim at White.. or White's stuffed owl. You figure it out...

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What's missing from this picture?

This has always puzzled me, and I'm sure there's more to it than meets the eye. Mack Sennett released this publicity photo of new star Harry Langdon in or around 1924. Harry is seen outside his dressing room, contemplating a signboard featuring the names of Sennett performers who had previously used the room, illustrating his status as new top dog in the Sennett pantheon. Of course it's just a gimmick, but the names Sennett or his publicity men opted to use are somewhat peculiar. Chaplin is a given, and his half-brother Syd was a star at the time. Gloria Swanson is also an obvious inclusion, although I doubt she would have wanted her name memorialized as a Sennett discovery. Harold Lloyd, on the other hand, breezed through the studio between gigs for Hal Roach, barely registering as more than an extra, hardly a Sennett "find". And what about the names that aren't included? Roscoe Arbuckle is missing, undoubtedly because of the scandal and blacklist, but what about Mabel Normand?? Given Mack's on again/off again relationship with Mabel, this seems a rather pointed omission. And that her star was on the decline in 1924 was no excuse. Hell, they've got Ford Sterling's name up there! Strangely, if you look closely at the photo, you'll notice that room was left at the bottom for Langdon's name, but one name on the sign was painted over in white and Langdon's name was written over it. Was it Arbuckle? Mabel?

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Alfie Dean in memoriam

Geoff feels Alfie Dean's obituary from The Performer (Sept. 30, 1948) deserves posting in its entirety, so here 'tis.

And here's a coda to Dean's tragic demise (The Performer, Feb. 9, 1950).

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a Motion Picture is purely coincidental..."

I concur with Nick. Olsen and Johnson are due for a comeback. Heck, they even have the endorsement of Quentin Tarantino, which officially makes Chic and Olie "hip", "edgy", and "dangerous". Universal should slap his mug all over a 2 DVD O&J set and rake in the dough! I keep hearing, however, that there's some ancient legal hangup preventing Universal from releasing Hellzapoppin' to DVD in the US. They had released it on VHS in the UK a couple of years ago, so it's not as if they've been completely sitting on it. All I can say is it must be one doozy of a legal snafu to keep a movie tied up for sixty-four years!

One minor quibble. Personally, I think Olsen and Johnson's Universal features (at least the three I've seen) are far wilder and funnier than anything the extremely methodical Tex Avery ever made. If anything, their comedy bears a stronger resemblance to the anything-goes, emotionally frazzled cartoons Bob Clampett directed in the 40s. There may have been method to the madness, but the infectious abandon of Olsen and Johnson's comedy was heartfelt and real. Just ask any victim of one of their nearly-reflexive practical jokes. And Chic's manic giggle? That's just the way he laughed.

And here's the truth: Olsen and Johnson are hip, edgy, and dangerous. They should have made a hundred comedies.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hellzapoppin' on DVD? When hell freezes over.

OK, I just watched Hellzapoppin' for about the 3rd time this month, starring the world's most dangerous comedians, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and my question is:


For those of you who're lining up to see Spamalot on Broadway, or even fans of the glorious grounbreaking Goon Show should get a look see at this movie type motion picture film and see where their inspiration could have come from. Hellzapoppin' is a breathless melange of insane movie trickery, fast paced gags upon gags, and more gags. Yes, Universal put a "story" in the film, but only begrudgingly, and to be honest, it works. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Comedy Teams, gives plenty of space to Hellzapoppin', but insists that it was a shame that Universal had to spoil the fun by injecting a typical romantic plot. I say HA! First of all, the romance is kind of fun because NOBODY takes it seriously, and if the film were only a copy of the Broadway version it would have become tiresome, and too pointless to sit still for. Even the craziest of the early Marx Brothers' films had a so called plot to hang the gags on. The gags in this film are so brilliantly layered. A gag that occurs early in the picture might not see it's punchline until near the end. The optical department must have worked nights on this film due to their glorious use of the medium itself. Ole and Chic have a running commentary with the projectionist (played by a very funny Shemp Howard) at the theatre where the film is playing. Unfortunately, Shemp is wooing plump theatre usherette, Jody Gilbert when he should be watching the film. This sets off a series of hysterical "film" gags that still amaze me with their cleverness.

Ole and Chic began as musicians in vaudeville playing straight jazz. Eventually they realized that comedy would get them better bookings, and before you could say "nepotism", they acquired a troupe of crazies (including a good deal of family) and toured with them across the country, and into Europe and beyond. This led to their Broadway smash, Hellzapoppin', which was basically a ritzed up version of the shows they'd been doing for years in the hinterlands. NYkers fell all over themselves to get tickets. Olsen and Johnson were now Broadway stars and could write their own ticket. They even became Broadway producers, hiring new team on the block, Abbott and Costello for the Bobby Clark starrer, Streets of Paris.

Olsen and Johnson made a few films before Hellzapoppin'. Warners was the first to sign them, although they really weren't sure how to use them. The best of their three features for Warners was Fifty Million Frenchmen, where they tangled briefly with a bearded Bela Lugosi. Five years later they showed up at Republic Studios, of all places, where they made one pleasant situational film, Country Gentlemen, and an almost precursor to their much zanier Universal films, All Over Town. When Republic didn't ask for any more films (and these were VERY low budget offerings), they went back on the road, and then on to Broadway history.

Universal called in 1941. They made Hellzapoppin' there, and then Crazy House, Ghost Catchers, and See My Lawyer, the weakest of the bunch. Crazy House has some hilarious gags (actually all the films do), especially in the first quarter of the film, and Ghost Catchers is a downright hoot. Unfortunately, the films were loaded to the breaking point with novelty acts (mostly musical numbers by long forgotten performers), which made them less appealing to the average young viewer. Let's face it, most of the kids I watched old comedies with couldn't take one or two of the musical numbers, must less 10! We wanted more Olsen and Johnson madness, and we didn't get it. Their film careers over, they did more Broadway, more touring, even a water show (Hellzasplashin'), and an ice show. They even tried TV with a summer replacement series, Fireball Fun For All. But their intricate gags, and prop laden schtick was too cumbersome for early live television and it came off as forced. These two funny men passed on in the early 60's within two years of each other. They are buried side by side in Las Vegas.

Regardless of their checkered cinematic past, Hellzapoppin' is a pip. It belongs right up on top of the classic comedy list, next to Duck Soup, and Million Dollar Legs. It's so ahead of it's time as be frightening at times. A friend of mine, upon seeing it for the first time asked, "Did Orson Welles see this? He must have loved it!". I totally understand what he meant. It's innovative the way Citizen Kane was innovative (there is even a nod to hip is THAT?). Most of the gags performed in Hellzapoppin' had to be inspirations to the great animators of the golden era. I could only think, "Wow, this is crazier than anything Tex Avery did up to that time.". It's true. Avery HAD to have seen this movie.

And so should you. It's only around in bootleg copies, but that's better than no Hellzapoppin' at all.

Shame on Universal for not releasing this classic, and shame on the snooty film community for ignoring a film that is funnier than anything made today by a longshot.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Fiddle Faddle Foo"

Bill Sherman has posted an insightful review of Bert Wheeler’s first post-Woolsey feature, Cowboy Quarterback (1939), on his blog. The film sounds quite uniquely horrible, plot-heavy and cheap, with Wheeler playing against type as an idiot bumpkin. Poor Bert apparently didn’t know what to do with himself after Woolsey’s death in 1938 and neither, it seems, did the studios. He had done extremely well as a solo act for years before finally teaming with Woolsey in Rio Rita in 1929, but a decade later he was on the way out, still young and energetic but not particularly in demand. He could have coasted for perhaps another six years at RKO had Woolsey lived, but his decline was underway before his partner’s death. RKO’s attempts to keep pace with changing trends in comedy, as well as the overall rising fortunes of the studio, meant a subsequent decline in the quality of Bert and Bob’s features, and by 1938’s unfortunate High Flyers, they were clearly relegated to B status. Woolsey’s death was a convenient opportunity for the studio to cut Bert loose, but Bert almost literally had nowhere to go.. in movies, at least. He followed Cowboy Quarterback with Las Vegas Nights (1941), remembered primarily as Frank Sinatra's unbilled screen debut. Las Vegas Nights has a good reputation but it was Bert’s final feature just the same. He resurfaced in 1950 at Columbia in one of Jules White’s horrible assembly-line comedies, Innocently Guilty, a remake (like every Columbia short in 1950) of a previous Columbia short, Charley Chase’s The Big Squirt (1937). At the age of 55, Bert Wheeler looks uncomfortable going through the standard Columbia knockabaout. It’s unpleasant, to say the least.

And be sure to visit this week to download The Noisy Eater (week 46), a bizarre children’s record Jerry Lewis recorded for Capitol’s Bozo series. Lewis plays a kid whose parents throw him out of the house for being a sloppy at the dinner table (talk about your tough love). Cast out into the cruel world, Jerry only ends up offending other potential surrogate families with his poor table manners. Happily for Jerry, dinner with “a fat man and his skinny wife” (the Fat Man sounds a hell of a lot like Billy Bletcher), both cursed with table manners as poor as Jerry’s, convinces him to turn his life around and return home. His parents, either out of guilt or as a bribe, give Jerry five bucks, which of course in those days was like a million dollars. The Noisy Eater is one of four Bozo records featured this week, the others being Bugs Bunny and Aladdin’s Lamp (with Mel Blanc), Walt Disney’s Rob Roy, and a hilariously condensed version of George Pal’s Destination Moon (with June Foray, beyond a doubt). is one of the internet’s true pop treasures, and some of the records they’ll be featuring in December look especially good; A Christmas Carol with Ronald Colman, Howdy Doody’s Christmas Party, and best of all, Pinky Lee Tells the Story of Inkas the Ramferinkas!

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Monday, November 14, 2005

The Triumph of Buster Keaton

The comedian may not be obscure, but the material is! Laughsmith Entertainment’s Industrial Strength Keaton double DVD set features a remarkable assortment of odds and ends from Buster’s career, running the gamut from rare silent footage to newly discovered industrial films. To suggest this set is for Keaton completests rather misses the point and infers that this footage is somehow best left to fanatics with undemanding tastes. Although generally accepted to have been at his prime during the silent era, Buster Keaton’s career was no simple Rise and Fall story, and he continued to produce excellent, and oftentimes brilliant, work until his death in 1966. Even at the lowest point in his life, just following his ouster from MGM in 1933, he was capable of a characteristically skilled and energetic performance in the little-seen Le Roi Des Champs-Élysées. While Buster was largely helpless when working for factories like MGM and the shorts department at Columbia, he thrived during the 50s and early 60s, a period that should could be considered his personal Renaissance. Freed from the studio grind and given a great degree of creative freedom by younger producers who recognized, and were appreciative of, Keaton’s status as a comedy mastermind, Buster was able to spend the last two decades of his life in front of the cameras, doing what he did best.

The release date has been moved ahead at least once, but Industrial Strength Keaton is supposed to be available in January, 2006. Personally, I can’t wait to finally see An Old Spanish Custom and The Triumph of Lester Snapwell.. and seeing Buster Keaton and Ed Wynn together on the same stage will probably make my head explode! I only wish Laughsmith could have thrown a few shorts from Buster’s series at Educational into the mix, but if there’s a market for Industrial Strength Keaton, it’s only a matter of time before someone releases that material as well.

Damn.. I love the cover, too! I CAN'T WAIT, I TELLS YA!!!!



The Playhouse (1921) B&W / Silent
* Audio commentary track
Digitally remastered and restored version of one of Keaton’s greatest shorts. New score from The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.

Character Studies (Mid-1920s) B&W
* Audio commentary track
Recently discovered short with famed magician Carter DeHaven and featuring cameos by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Jackie Coogan, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Rudolph Valentino.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) B&W / sound feature
* Audio commentary track
* Keaton's Italian villa still gallery
Digitally remastered and restored feature. Definitive version.


Seein' Stars (1922) B&W / sound

The Voice of Hollywood #10 (1929) B&W / sound

Hollywood on Parade #A-6 (1933) B&W / sound

An Old Spanish Custom (1935) B&W / sound
* Audio commentary track
* Original press book


The Butcher Boy / Can of Molasses Sketch
* The Butcher Boy (1917) B&W / Silent clip w/ Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
* The Ed Wynn Show (1949) B&W / Sound w/ Ed Wynn
* You Asked For It (1957) B&W / Sound w/ Eddie Gribbon
* Unknown TV appearance (1950s) B&W / Sound w/ Billy Gilbert

"The Martha Raye Show" (1956) B&W / Sound
* The Concert
Buster Keaton and Martha Raye recreate a sketch originally used in the classic Charlie Chaplin feature Limelight.

"Circus Time" (1956)


Alka Seltzer (1958) [5 spots]

Northwest Orient Airlines (1958)

Simon Pure Beer (1958) [6 spots]

Shamrock Oil / Outtakes (1959)
* Audio commentary track
* Director’s interview track

Milky Way (1961)

Pure Oil (1965)

Country Club Malt Liquor (1958) [3 spots]

Ford Econoline (1963)

Jeep - Lessons in Living (1960)
* Only surviving complete Jeep commercial
* Recently discovered fragments from previously undocumented Jeep commercials.

Pure Oil (1965)


The Devil To Pay (1960) B&W / sound short
* Promotional booklet

The Homeowner (1961) - Color / sound short
* Audio commentary track
Recently discovered, previously undocumented Keaton industrial film.

The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (1963) Color short


1 Parlor, 5 Bedrooms and 6 Baths - A new mini-documentary from filmmaker Jack Dragga.

Commentary tracks from comedy historians Andy Coryell, Paul Gierucki, Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa and Richard M. Roberts.

Still galleries featuring previously unseen Keaton images, original press books, trade advertisements and more.

New music scores from composer Ben Model.

20 page full color booklet with detailed descriptions of each film, archival photos and essays from authors/historians Ken Gordon, Steve Massa, David B. Pearson, Patricia Eliot Tobias and more!

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Geoff Collins Salutes Cyril Fletcher, King of the "Odd Odes"

Bedford, England; a town so dull that the local paper has headlines like "Glenn Miller Still Missing". It's January 2, 1959, a cold wintry day in the sleepy fifties. Typically, just too late for Christmas, Bill Collins brings home a television set for his wife and young son. Three-year-old Geoff is thrilled beyond words. Suddenly there's a box in the front room with people in it, talking, singing, dancing... but his joy is soon transformed into stark horror for a tall dark man with huge scary eyes has appeared on screen. He addresses the audience with the stentorian booming voice of a demented elocution teacher. Is it Nosferatu the Vampire? No! It's Cyril Fletcher, the Comedian:

"Yerse...thanking yew! Cyril "Dreamin' of Theeee" Fletchahh he-ahhh! Odd Ode Number One Coming Up! [lapses momentarily into a strangulated mock-Cockney] Pin back your lug-'oles! This is the tale of Christine Crump, who thought her figure was too plump..."

(Don't expect the full accurate text of this - it was 46 years ago).

The point is: this was the first comedian I was ever exposed to and he scared the crap out of me! I was cowering behind the sofa in double-quick time. After Cyril, Doctor Who was nothing; the Daleks were easy-peasy. It took a long time for me to appreciate Cyril's drolleries. With the passage of time, I've managed to reject many of my childhood comedy heroes : Hope, Kaye, Lewis (eugh!), Wisdom (please!!!) - and I can re-assess Cyril in a new light; but not daylight, because to this day I'm convinced he was one of the Undead, which is why he always wore dark glasses on his gardening show - he didn't like to be out before nightfall.

Cyril's autobiography, "Nice One Cyril", is a wonderful book. In the preface he playfully laments the fact that he's not mentioned in Who's Who in the Theatre, or in anybody else's memoirs, and that he had to write his own story to prove to himself that he actually existed. Yet he was a star comedian from 1936 until the 1980s, and had a great renaissance on That's Life in the mid-1970s.

Resplendent in a dinner jacket and bow-tie, sitting comfortably in a purple leather armchair and reading "amusing" stuff sent in by the viewers, he wore a blackened toupee which came to a point in the middle of his forehead. By this time he'd developed a squint and had to wear a huge pair of spectacles which made his eyes look even bigger and scarier. All this gave him the appearance of an elderly vampire relaxing after a splendid lunch. On one occasion the toupee had slipped and was seriously off-centre, but he carried on, benign and oblivious. He probably terrified an entire new generation of children.

There was a brilliant parody of That's Life on Not the Nine O'Clock News - and this is really worth unearthing - in which Griff Rhys Jones-as-Cyril referred to himself (i.e. Cyril) as a "camp old twat".

Camp old twat, indeed. But there was always a bit more to Cyril Fletcher than this. His early work seems to employ the Healy-Fields-Max Wall audience alienation technique; he's quite bravely patronising and condescending ("D'you seee?"), daring the audience to laugh at this pompous toff in the lounge suit declaiming his inane Odd Odes. By the 1970s and That's Life he'd softened a bit and was a genuinely endearing and beloved Camp Old Twat - although I still wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night. He was always an original, a one-off, not like anybody else - and you can't have too many of those.

Can I bring in a personal note here and boast a bit? I actually saw Cyril in action (not during the daytime, obviously); a radio recording of Does the Team Think at the Playhouse Theatre, London, August 29, 1974 (broadcast about six months later - it seemed like forever - and I've still got the recording of it). I was eighteen then and didn't have to hide behind the seat when he appeared. Black-wigged Cyril seemed much younger than his three team-mates Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, and said a lot less, but "less is more" as we all know. Edwards in particular yapped on endlessly, boringly and filthily; in the broadcast version they cut most of it out.

By this time Cyril was a re-established star on That's Life and also had a daytime (unusual for a vampire) gardening show, Gardening Today, which he presented informatively but in his typically droll manner ("This is known as the dead wood stage!"). He died on January 2, 2005 and is survived by his wife and stage partner Betty Astell, an astonishingly beautiful woman. In fact one of the most delightful aspects of Cyril's book is his obvious devotion to Betty.

It's pleasant to report that Cyril and Betty's daughter Jill - who resembles Cyril in so many ways - carries on the show-business tradition, not the least of which is her incarnation as Bolly the Clown (details under, and in particular,

Cyril only appeared in three feature films, so there isn't much of his art about (several of his scenes as Mantalini in Alberto Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby (1947) were cut as the film was overlong and they didn't advance the plot) but he's worth a look on - especially in The Careless Sneezer, which is like a tiny film noir, lit very dramatically with lots of shadows to utilise his spooky persona to maximum effect.

Now, we must ask the ultimate question: why do I find it necessary to write all this? Initially it's because Cyril was my First Comedian: and secondly because this blog is about comedians who have not received their full appraisal. Cyril was a star for fifty years on stage, screen and radio, but who's heard of him now? I have, and I'd like to share him with you.

One last thing: I work at one of the finest art galleries outside London ( and one day I was discussing early television with one of the visitors, a charming lady in her fifties (this was in connection with our exhibition on 50s to 80s youth culture). I mentioned my scary first experience of Cyril Fletcher; she said that when she was a little girl she saw him as Mother Goose in a pantomime in Northampton. I asked "What was he like?" and she replied "He was terrifying!"

Cyril Trevellian Fletcher: June 25, 1913 - January 2, 2005.

Goodbye Cyril; and bless you.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Clark and McCulloughpalooza!

At long last, I've added a minor slew of new images to the contributions page of The Clark and McCullough Database, going on six years (I think) as the world's only Clark and McCullough fan page. Who knew? There's a complete set of lobby cards for their best RKO short, Odor in the Court, a handbill for a burlesque revue they produced in the 'teens, and some other fun stuff. Again, if you or anyone you may know has any memorabilia or info related to Bobby Clark and/or Paul McCullough, please contact me at One of these days, I may actually get that book written. Away, Blodgett!!

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Who Are Collinson and Dean?

While British comedy team Collinson and Dean are easily accessible today thanks to their many appearances in the Pathetone newsreel (available online), the story of their lives and careers remains largely unrecorded, leaving us in the odd position of being able to experience their most famous routines (and even witness a live performance), but know very little about them. For such a talented and entertaining team, they're remarkably obscure and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this brief overview is the most that has been written about them in years.

Will Collinson, the team's straightman, was born William Valentine Malavoire in 1882. He toured Europe, Australia, and America, as a "sketch artiste", and was well-respected among performers as a dependable writer of comedy routines. It is evident from the routines available on British Pathe that Collinson also made good use of tried-and-true burlesque routines, presumably picked up on his American visits, and which were probably fresh to UK audiences in the 1920s and 30s. In 1925, Collinson met Alfie Dean and performed with him in a sketch he had written to entertain wounded soldiers. Alfie Dean, real name Alfred Corfield, was born March 7th, 1902 in London and had begun his stage career in 1915 as a member of Gerald Mount's Juveniles. A good foot-and-a-half shorter and seventeen years younger than Collinson, Dean provided the contrast that would form the basis of the team's stage and radio act. For most of their appearances over their thirteen years together, it was the generation gap (or the intelligence gap) that fueled their skits. Collinson's most popular stage persona was as a blustery and slightly doltish middle-aged patsy. Dean commonly played foil as a wisecracking and malicious schoolboy, quickly and deftly driving Collinson, the definition of an easy mark, up the wall with inane questions, one-liners and nonsequitirs. The comedy of Collinson and Dean stands in marked contrast to most of their UK contemporaries being built as it is on the kind of near-hostile give-and-take that was common in American double-acts, but was largely unknown in England at the time. Even British teams that adhered to a similar dynamic, such as Flanagan and Allen, handled their material and characterizations with a certain degree of affection. Collinson and Dean, however, thrive on barely motivated comic anger. Will Collinson's stuffy growling only serves to entice Alfie Dean to greater heights of gleeful mental torture, bordering on outright sadism. In that regard, he's very different from such comedians as Lou Costello and Bud Flanagan who plague their straightmen out of childlike ignorance rather than malice. Dean's meticulous and deliberate use of puns and conundrums as mental torture bears a stronger resemblance with the modus operandi of Groucho and Chico Marx, but even Chico's endless punning is motivated by his own brand of willful stupidity, not antagonism.

Take for instance Collinson and Dean's interpretation of the venerable 7 x 13 = 28 burlesque routine. As performed by Abbott and Costello in In the Navy (1941), no malice or victimization really plays a part in the routine. Lou's insistence that 7 x 13 = 28 is well in keeping with his childlike personality while Bud's understandable disbelief is rooted in his role as the skeptical (and mercurial) adult. When Lou "proves" that 7 x 13 = 28 using hilariously flawed mathematics, he has asserted the clown's natural superiority over reason, carrying Bud further into his own special and improbable world, the verbal equivalent of Stan Laurel igniting his thumb like a lighter to the alarm and bewilderment of Oliver Hardy. Bud, however, can just as easily reassert his own authority with a well-placed slap to Lou's kisser. In the hands of Collinson and Dean eight years earlier, the routine is entirely about comic victimization, probably as it was customarily performed in burlesque. In this routine, Collinson and Dean appear simply as Bill and Alf, with Collinson playing his part as an amiable patsy rather than a stuffy one and Dean as sharp-witted conman. Alfie Dean uses the skewed math of 7 x 13 = 28 in order to finagle a larger share of a seven-way betting pool out of the foolish Bill, who even contributes to his own downfall as he himself "proves" that 7 x 13 = 28 by adding up the figures incorrectly. Furthering the theme, they segue into the "Magic Chalk" routine, in which Dean bets Collinson that his magic chalk will "write any color you care to name". Collinson loses again when Dean simply writes out "red" rather than write in red. And when he tries to turn the tables in order to win his money back, Dean simply names a color Collinson can't spell. Their timing in this routine, as in all of their routines, is razor sharp, almost mechanical, and devoid of the subtle character shadings that Abbott and Costello used to make any routine their own. But while the inner-logic of the routine as performed by Collinson and Dean is more rudimentary, their harsher, rapid-fire approach to the material is extremely funny in its own right.

An immediate success in 1925, Collinson and Dean's partnership lasted thirteen years, reaching its peak in a 1933 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. They continued as a team until the outbreak of WWII when Dean entered the Army. Collinson continued the act with a new foil, Bobby Breen. In photos and footage, Breen appears to have been no taller than 4'9, giving his take on Dean's schoolboy role a certain verisimilitude. But the Collinson and Breen Pathetone clip available on reveals that Breen had little of Dean's sense of timing or playful tenacity. The pacing of the routine is subsequently slower and less appealing. Nonetheless, Collinson and Breen were successful on radio and the stage through 1948. By 1951, Breen was performing solo as evidenced by his appearance in E. J. Fancey's London Entertains (also featuring appearances by the Goons). Bill Collinson died in 1958 at the age of 76.

top: Collinson and Breen in one of their military sketches. bottom: trade ad from The Performer, June 13, 1946. Images (and commentary) courtesy of Geoff Collins

Alfie Dean, however, met a tragic and untimely end. After returning from the war, he began appearing regularly as a foil to Sid Field and even chalked up a second Royal Performance with him in 1946. Although Dean had appeared repeatedly in the Pathetone newsreel and in the 1938 Wally Patch musical On Velvet with Collinson, his appearance with Field in London Town in 1946, finally put him on the path towards becoming a film comedian proper. He followed up in 1948 with a role in A Date With a Dream with Terry-Thomas and was then cast in a sizable role in The Cardboard Cavalier with Sid Field. Field felt that the role "would have put Alfie with a very high rating in pictures" but it was not to be. In July, 1948, Alfie Dean was struck by a car and suffered a head injury that required fifteen stitches. After three weeks in the hospital, he resumed work on Cardboard Cavalier but began suffering "blackouts", forcing him out the production. Re-entering the hospital, Dean was diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain. He died following surgery on September 22, 1948.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Geoff Collins Reveals the Healy and Costello Story!

The abrupt departure of Ted Healy's stooges in early 1934 left the great comedian in something of a quandary. Of course, he should have seen this coming; he'd had to pay them the absolute minimum wage for some time, in order to afford the basic necessities of life: booze and women. And why was Moe so unsympathetic and inconsiderate about this? Not that Ted needed stooges, but it was nice to have someone to slap around when his demons took hold - which was usually three or four times a night.

THREE stooges cost a lot of money though.... The thought crossed Ted's mind: why not a double act? So he sent a wire to Lou Costello.

They'd met, briefly, before, in '26 or '27 at the Hal Roach studio. Ted, already a star, was doing a guest bit in Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes; Lou was an extra, doing his best to get noticed (he's visible, mugging away expansively, in the front row of the boxing auditorium audience in The Battle of the Century) But whereas Ted subsequently found fame and fortune in Hollywood and the New York nightclubs, Lou had gone back to vaudeville and burlesque. But he was a funny little guy and he could take a slap.

The team clicked immediately and they soon built up an impressive range of routines, most notably "Who's the Daddy Bear ?" in which would-be nightclubber Ted impatiently tries to get "baby son" Lou to sleep by telling him the story of Goldilocks. However, the three bears are called Who, What, and I Don't Know, resulting in a very exasperated Ted and a much-slapped Lou.

Another celebrated routine, "What time Is It?" cast Ted as the merciless drill sergeant and Lou as the hapless buck private unable - and secretly unwilling - to follow the simplest instruction. This featured Ted's catchphrase "You belong in the INSANE asylum" and the revelation (an idea later recycled on the English radio Goon Show) that although Lou carries an armful of watches, he has the time written on a piece of paper.

Successful vaudeville tours were soon followed by guest appearances in Columbia features and a few surreal musical shorts for MGM which were in effect thinly disguised showcases for the dubious talents of Ted's girlfriends (Bonnie's in the Money) A contract with Universal in 1940 resulted in the team's first starring feature, Hey Teddy!. This was a remake of the horror classic The Old Dark House, with Ted and Lou as stranded travellers forced to spend the night in a spooky mansion populated by a family of homicidal maniacs. The head of the household, Saul Femm, was played with great relish by imported comic Cyril Fletcher, whom the boys had befriended on a British music hall tour the year before. Cyril was magnificently creepy in the role, and this led to a succession of similar butler-manservant parts in cheap horror-comedies for Monogram, and one co-starring role at PRC with Harry Langdon: The Odd Odor. But despite a splendid turn as Renfield in Healy and Costello Meet Dracula, he realised his movie career was going nowhere and he returned to English variety and television, where he terrified a whole new generation of children.

By this time, though, the H & C comedies, churned out at the rate of two or three a year, were becoming formulaic and Ted's drinking was beginning to affect his timing, although there were occasional high spots such as the reworking of the drill sequence in Lou's Your Buddy. Ted was also bitter that Lou had managed to reverse the original pay structure so that he now got 40% and Lou got 60%. This led to the inevitable acrimonious split, and Lou teamed up with vaudeville veteran Sidney Fields, who'd been struggling along in another double act with Bobby Barber. In order to placate Bobby, Lou kept him on as a sort of paid fall guy. Sid and Lou went on to become popular TV stars and eventually landed their own weekly series in which they played down-on-their luck vaudevillians trying to keep one step ahead of the landlord, who was played by another old pal, gravelly-voiced Bud Abbott. [I'll bet you thought he'd never arrive!]

In the meantime Ted, after his young wife virtually forced him into a lengthy drying-out session at the Keeley Institute, also went on to become one of the early stars of TV, taking over as MC on the Texaco Star Theater at very short notice. It has recently been suggested that the vicious brawl outside a New York nightclub, which resulted in the hospitalisation of host Milton Berle and the death of guest star Wallace Beery, was not the result of a random attack by students, but was planned and carried out by mobsters. Did Lou help his former partner back into the limelight? One of the retreating assassins was heard to yell "I'm a ba-aa-aad boy!"

Ted's career went from strength to strength; he appeared many times on Sid and Lou's show as Mike the Cop, never failing to give Lou a slap at every opportunity. Eventually he settled in as popular host of The Tonight Show.

Lou died in 1959, and a few years later Ted showed that all the old grievances were long forgotten when he presented an affectionate TV-movie tribute: Hey Fieldsie! Ted himself celebrated his golden wedding anniversary in May 1986 and died two months later at the age of 89.

But what became of Ted's original stooges? Apart from a few guest bits on children's TV shows such as Uncle Mousie's Nertsery Time, they were never heard of again.

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It's a Classic Comedy "What If"/"What Is" Weekend

Coincidentally enough, Geoff and Nick's posts both involve Ted Healy, King of Stooges. Nick has handled the what-is of Healy and Pendelton, while Geoff has tackled the what-if of Healy and Costello. Synchronicity is just weird.. For the hell of it, I'm going to repost my nightmare Chaplin and Brendel "What If" from my personal blog. Enjoy.. if you dare.

In late 1928, Hollywood's most powerful studios conspired to destroy upstart distribution company United Artists. Taking advantage of the growing demand for talkies and the decline in output from UA stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, MGM, Paramount, and Universal used their distribution networks to almost completely choke UA's proPublishduct from the nation's theaters. The loss of revenue, coupled with the Crash of 1929, forced UA to declare bankruptcy in early 1930. Chaplin, in particular, was hit hard, losing millions in the crash and the collapse of UA. Saddled with debt, Chaplin was forced to throw himself upon the mercies of the very studios which had contributed to his financial ruin. In no position to haggle over terms, Chaplin found himself at MGM in June 1930, hard at work on his first "All-Singing, All-Dancing" talkie, Everything's Swell, a rags-to-riches story in which the Tramp, a small town theater handyman, bungles his way to stardom. Distressed by a loss of creative control and frustrated by management's refusal to cast him in appropriate vehicles, Chaplin turned to drink and became increasingly unmanageable. By 1935, his critical reputation as a genius in tatters, Chaplin was cast out on his ear by studio head Louis B. Mayer (who publicly referred to Chaplin as a "baggy-pants prima donna"). Charlie Chaplin was quickly hired by comedy shorts producer Hal Roach who featured Chaplin in a new series. Although given a great deal of creative latitude and the opportunity to work alongside former Karno understudy Stan Laurel, the alcohol and disillusionment continued to take their toll on Chaplin's ability to perform. When Roach shifted production away from shorts in 1937, Chaplin found work at Columbia's comedy shorts department under producer/director Jules White (who had directed Chaplin twice at MGM). The resulting shorts, a total of thirty-nine made between 1938 and 1946, had a few highlights (especially in those directed by Charley Chase) but were generally poor. Nonetheless, the films were well-received by the public and represented a welcome and sizable paycheck for the comedian, the biggest star in Jules White's stable of comics. In 1944, following a series of slapstick service comedies featuring the Tramp as a harried Army private (and one, Blitz Dizzy (1942), which starred Chaplin in a brilliant turn as a Hitler-like dictator), Chaplin was callously teamed with Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel. The teaming was one of many forced comedy partnerships at the Columbia shorts department and was particularly humiliating for Chaplin, who hadn't had to share top billing since his earliest days at Keystone. The Chaplin and Brendel shorts were similarly well-liked by audiences, especially in rural America, but were among the worst films of Chaplin's career, featuring tired slapstick, awkward dialect humor, and downright narcoleptic performances from a severely depressed and frequently drunken Chaplin. Worst of all, many of the final shorts saw Chaplin playing resigned straightman to Brendel's madcap Swede, with Chaplin not even receiving billing in trade ads or publicity material. Chaplin quit Columbia and film altogether in 1946 and spent several years "drying out" in various clinics along the West Coast before making a genuine comeback on live television in 1949.

"Let go of me, you fool! Jules White wants us to rehash Three Stooges scripts!"

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Pendelton and Healy

I'm not quite sure how happy Ted Healy would've been with this billing, but it does sound better than Healy and Pendelton. Nat Pendelton, the big, beefy comic foil and sometimes heavy, and King of Stooges, Ted Healy were both under contract to the Cartier of studios, MGM at the same time. They appeared in 4 films together as a team, popping in and out of B unit murder mysteries (and one A unit feature, Reckless w/Harlow and William Powell), and relieving us with their high-larry-ass highjinx. If you watch the films, Lazy River, Here Comes The Band, Death on the Diamond, and Murder in the Fleet, you'll find this duo dishing out what seems to be semi-spontaneous bits of business as the leading man and woman actually solve the crimes. They were always cast as friendly rivals, sniping at each other as they usually opt for the same girl.

Now, I can't honestly say that I think they were any threat to Laurel and Hardy, or Wheeler and Woolsey, but they were both charismatic and very amusing performers, whether separately, or together. Upon seeing these films for the first time on the only station I can seem tolerate these days, TCM, I wondered if it was no ordinary coincidence that MGM put these two contract players together. They tried it with Keaton and Durante. They also tried it with Karl Dane and George Arthur (until sound put the Kibosh on that duo due to Dane's thick accent. He ended up selling hotdogs outside the studio gates, and then, not surprisingly, shooting himself to death surrounded by artifacts from his moribund career.). Healy had only recently split with his Stooges, and it would have made sense for the studio to try to figure the best way to use his talents. Pendelton must have seemed a good partner for the newly solo Healy. He could do the dumb act, and he could play and he was proficient with a wisecrack. Pendelton even inherited an interesting place in comedy team history, he actually gets killed in Death on the Diamond! Now, I know that other comedy teams do cartoon-y deaths. Oliver Hardy in Flying Deuces, for instance....or Lou Costello in The Time of Their Lives, but Pendelton wasn't coming back as a horse, or to comically haunt a house, he was dead. Dead like a doornail. Like culture in this country....DEAD! Cool.

So, there you have it. We're left with only questions to accompany the reels of film. What if Healy hadn't died (as opposed to Pendelton, who only died in a movie)? Would there have been a series of B films starring this mondo obscuro pair? Would Columbia have picked them up for a shorts series? Perhaps Universal would have used them as comedy relief in the Richard Arlen action films, or Warners could have made them up in the Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins mold. Who knows?

Anyway you slice it it still comes up conjecture. They were two funny guys. I would have liked to have seen more of them.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Greetings Vintage Comedy Heads

Nick Santa Maria here. Before I leap into Lake Obscuro, I just wanted to say how happy I am to be a member of this blog. Aaron Neathery is one of the most talented and responsible commentators on this subject, and I've been a fan of his for several years now. We've been bouncing our views off one another for nigh unto a parakeet's age and I always come away from Neathery's letters with something I'd never known before. That ain't easy.

I wanted to introduce myself as someone who's writings won't be so much about facts, dates, and figures as much as it'll be my musings on things like:

Healy and Pendelton, MGM's on and off comedy team.

Charlie Butterworth, sort of a Stan Laurel without the heart, and Ollie, of course.

What if Robert Woolsey had lived?

Anyway, you get the idea.

See you all soon!


Thursday, November 03, 2005

We will BURY you.... in hilarity!

I sure don't, but do you remember the days when you could publish a trashy trade paperback about a silent comedian... and people would buy it? Believe it or not, Leo Guild's The Fatty Arbuckle Case is far more objective than the lurid jacket would indicate. I mean, look at it!

Poor Roscoe! Stanley Borack has painted him as the love-child of Curly Howard and Nikita Kruschev (and who ever imagined that Virginia Rappe had such a long torso!). Fortunately for Roscoe, better books have been written about his career and tragic downfall, including Stuart Oderman's latest, probably definitive, biography. But what about the others, I ask you? It has been too long since a classic comedy fan could plunk down a quarter for a cheap, poorly-researched paperback with a misleading cover about his or her favorite silent comedians. Let us relive those dear, dead days of yesteryear with this sampling of phoney paperback covers I just made up.

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