Saturday, December 31, 2005

HAPPY NEW YEAR to all you lucky people!

From Nick, Geoff, myself, Ted Healy, and Ted's beloved outboard motor, we all wish you the very best of new years. Many and varied apologies about the quietness of this blog this past week, but, you know, Christmas and all... We'll all be back with more nice tasty comedy very soon, including a review of what is quite possibly the only Pat and Patachon DVD set in North America. CAN YOU STAND THE SUSPENSE????

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Very Merry Christmas to You and Yours!

In honor of the Christmas season, I'm presenting this Christmas-y two-page Film Fun comic from 1954 featuring Arthur Lucan, aka Old Mother Riley. Be sure to check out Martyn Peter Wilkinson's Old Mother Riley tribute site. It's chock full of info about Britain's most popular pre-Dame Edna drag act, but is disappointingly short on details regarding Lucan's nightmarish marriage to stage "daughter" and manager Kitty McShane. I highly recommend Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks' Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain for a recounting of the filming of Lucan's last feature, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), that'll make your hair stand on end. Lucan collapsed and died in the wings just before making his entrance in Old Mother Riley in Paris at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull, in 1954.

click the thumbnails

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bobby Clark and the Case of the Missing Skits

If you haunt eBay as regularly and as thoroughly as I do, every now and again you'll really hit the jackpot. For low-income obsessives such as myself, eBay is an absolutely indispensable research tool. My big find of the last few months is this 1944 letter from legendary Broadway clown Bobby Clark to a fan who has requested a transcript of one of Bobby's skits.

March 24th 1944

Dear Mr. Klisto,

Your letter received. Sorry I've been so long answering but I've been having trouble with my knee and have put everything to one side to try and get it back in shape again.

I have received so many letters just like yours, and have never been able to help out any of the requests and here's the reason. When the U.S.O. first went into action, almost everyone of the stage was asked to send in all the material of any kind they could. This I promptly did. I gave everything I possibly could find. So now, I am without any of the old material that I had collected for a lot of years. I was promised that all the material would be re-typed and the original sent back to me. So far I haven't seen any action on it. In fact I am now at the stage, where, if I did want to do any of the old material, blackouts, sketches, songs, etc. I would have to do it from memory.

So you see I can't be of any use to you. It seemed to me that the U.S.O. has slipped up badly in distributing the tremendous amount of material that (was) sent in to them. Where has it gone to?

With all best wishes,
Yours sincerely
Bobby Clark

It's easy to imagine as vast an undertaking as the creation of an indexed USO comedy material database being slow going under the best of conditions (and with computers!), so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it barely got past the planning stages. But what about the material the USO requested? Every red-blooded, patriotic baggy-pants burlesque comic would have gladly offered up their material, so is the US government now sitting on heaps of old vaudeville and burlesque sketches? Is there a warehouse somewhere full of boxes bulging with material from the likes of Bert Lahr, Eddie Cantor, and Joe Cook? Would an FOIA request clear up this mystery?

What's troubling to me, at least, is that the bulk of the writing of one of America's premiere comedians has apparently been devoured by red tape. This is bad news for anyone hoping to chronicle Bobby's life and work.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Geoff Collins Salutes Sid Field: "What a Performance!"

For the benefit of our American readers - both of you! - let's clear up a misunderstanding from the start. Sidney Fields was a bald-headed American burlesque comedian who memorably portrayed Abbott and Costello's misanthropic, cigar-chewing, tightfisted landlord. A GENIUS. We'll talk about him later.

Sid Field, on the other hand, was English, a large lumbering man with dark wavy hair and wide-apart blue eyes. He didn't live very long, and he's almost impossible to find today as he only made three movies and a couple of 78rpm records - and you'd need to hire a private detective to find any of them.

Yet, in spite of being nowhere, he's everywhere. Hire that detective! Endure hours of ridiculous plot exposition and really painful musical numbers in order to view Sid's sketches in those long-buried movies. For there you will see all of Postwar British Comedy. Sid toiled away, efficiently but almost anonymously, in the British provincial variety theatres before becoming a West End Star in 1943, a movie star in 1946, and a corpse in 1950. But he influenced everybody. The evidence is all there: the plaintive, high-pitched innocence of the young Eric Morecambe (Sid's "I've never 'ad a GO yet, 'ave I?" sounds just like Eric); the crafty Cockney Spiv of Arthur English ("Play the music! Open the cage!") and, later, James Beck of Dad's Army, who had a similar-to-Sid long-overdue meteoric rise and drink-related early death ; the warmth and joy of Harry Secombe; Freddie Frinton's staggering yet curiously self-controlled drunk; any number of "camp" comedians, most conspicuously Larry Grayson; and Tony Hancock's astonishing facial range and deep inner sadness. So you don't need to "watch Sid Field" to see Sid Field.

Sid's first starring film, That's the Ticket, was made for Warner Brothers at Teddington in 1939 and was long thought to be lost because the Nazis bombed the studio in 1944 (maybe they'd seen it!). Apparently a print has recently turned up - which, due to the scarcity of Sid material, should be cause for great celebration - but where is it? Have you seen it? Where can anybody get to see it? Answers, please.

Sid's "first film" (but actually, of course, his second) London Town, runs for over two hours - that is, if you can get to see the complete print. Its last public appearance, on Channel 4 in 1985, lacked the "spiv" sequence and Sid's "Blizzard of the Bells" routine (which was cut anyway before the original release, although a chopped-up black-and-white version of it can be seen in To See Such Fun). London Town: my God, what horrors this title evokes. This ghastly fiasco didn't reach American screens until about 1953, in a much-edited version, as My Heart Goes Crazy. Tutankhamen must have been the Associate Producer on this turkey, as so many people associated with it were subsequently cursed with bad luck. It finished director Wesley Ruggles' career; Sonnie Hale never made another film and died in his fifties; character player W. G. Fay died in 1947, Alfie Dean in '48, Sid himself in '50; and co-star Kay Kendall, after disappearing altogether for four years (even her family don't know where she went) before her glorious but brief 1950s renaissance, died in 1959.

Yet despite all this, it preserves intact, and in glorious Technicolor, Sid's stage sketches. Here he is, with that wonderfully sharp and intolerant straightman Jerry Desmonde, trying to learn the rudiments of the game of golf, yet secretly yearning for his music lessons with Miss Fanthorpe ("Miss Fanthorpe's kind...she can play the piano and the [tongue flipping swiftly out and back in like an adder on the next syllable] flute!"); as an outrageously camp "society photographer"; as a top-hatted drunk tantalisingly encountering a long flight of stairs (as Leon Errol did in The Jitters - more on this movie later!); and as mega-overcoated barrow boy Slasher Green happily abandoning his market stall in order to demonstate his complete lack of talent as a would-be entertainer. He's heckled by Alfie Dean and seriously underencouraged by Jerry Desmonde, yet his self-confidence remains undimmed; it's a 1940s version of The X Factor.

Ironically, yet typically for this unlucky comedian, his best routine is the one they cut out (in order to retain all those godawful musical numbers), in which his excessively polite Professor of Music, clad in oversized tuxedo, medals ("Prizes!!!!!!") and bicycle clips, attempts to play "Sleighbells Across the Sahara" ("There's no such're having me on, aren't you ?") on the Tubercular Bells. Catch this if you can, or what's left of it, in To See Such Fun, and you'll have watched the definitive Sid Field sketch. And you'll also know what all the fuss is about, and why so many comedians worshipped this man.

Cardboard Cavalier, Sid's second movie (or third, if you've been paying attention) is a much better effort, a lot easier to sit through but they still didn't know what to do with Sid. He's again a barrow boy, this time in 1650s Cromwellian England - what possible appeal did they think this would have in 1940s America? - and, helpfully, he has his pals with him: Jerry Desmonde as Colonel Lovelace, and the final, brief appearance of Alfie Dean - but it all goes on far too long despite....hold on a moment, dear readers, I'm in danger of going on far too long myself.

In conclusion, I'll just say this: watch what you can of Sid on the Pathe website (there's not much and it's all silent, but it provides a clue) and if any of you have the power to do so, GET SID'S MOVIES BACK INTO CIRCULATION, especially That's the Ticket which, to me anyway, is the Holy Grail. You'll rediscover a lovable, wistful comedian with a beautifully mobile, expressive face. Sid's rare all right, much too rare; but he's worth the effort.

Sidney Arthur Field: April 1, 1904 - February 3, 1950.

Goodbye Sid - but we'll all see you soon, I hope.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

"The best of the old comedy favorites, the brightest of the new stars"

Founded in 1915 by Earle W. Hammons for the production and distribution of classroom films, Educational Pictures quickly, and lucratively, shifted gears and began producing comedy shorts. Educational hit its peak sometime in the mid-20s, releasing Jack White's acclaimed Lloyd Hamilton shorts and distributing Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat cartoons. But in 1933, following a financially disastrous partnership with Mack Sennett to produce features (as Sono Art-World Wide Pictures), Educational was forced to sell off its exchanges and reopen at Paramount's old Astoria, Long Island facility (where The Cocoanuts and Follow The Leader were shot). Now releasing through 20th Century Fox, Educational had become a strange twilight zone of down-on-their-luck silent era names like Buster Keaton and moonlighting Broadway celebrities like Bert Lahr and Joe Cook, taking advantage of the studio's convenient proximity. Not only silent era performers but producers and directors found Educational a friendly port during the industry's turbulent transition to sound. The studio's product was wildly uneven during its final decade with even the best shorts looking extremely threadbare. As cheap as the shorts may have been, and as poor as the writing frequently was, the talent on display was undeniably impressive.

I found this 1936 trade ad for Educational on Ebay last month and it nicely illustrates the bizarre blend of "old comedy favorites" and "new stars" that populated the studio's product at the time. Buster Keaton, at a low point in his life but still capable of wonderful work, and the brilliant Joe Cook are clearly the studio's prize performers (Joe Cook had no better film vehicles than his shorts), but the lower ranks are pretty fascinating, too. Bert Lahr, the most famous of the second-stringers depicted, should have been a major film personality (IMO) but his film career never clicked and today he's remembered primarily for his performance as the Cowardly Lion. Tom Howard, Joe Cook's stooge from Rain Or Shine (1930), had his own series, appearing with his own stooge George Shelton. Both went on to star through the 1940s in the radio quiz parody It Pays To Be Ignorant. Until I saw this ad, I had no idea that professional milquetoast Ernest Truex had ever been the featured performer in anything, let alone his own series of shorts. He found work in film and on TV through 1965 as the meek next-door neighbor or the ineffectual boss. Truex's wife, Mary Jane Barrett (bottom right), appeared with him frequently on Broadway and, it seems, at Educational, although she doesn't have an IMDB listing. The rest of the comics are the aforementioned "new stars" and of them, only Tim and Irene Ryan, the poor man's Burns and Allen, went on to have any kind of substantial screen career. Gruff Tim and madcap Irene became a standard feature of poverty row musical comedies through 1944. I've never seen any of their work for Educational but The Wacky Family (1936) must be one of the weakest film titles of all time. Tim, a prolific B-comedy screenwriter, died in 1956. Irene Ryan, who divorced Tim in 1942, went on to lasting fame as Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. Incidentally, Tim and Irene are featured on the original 1934 sheet music for Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. I'm assuming they introduced the song on radio. Does anyone out there know? The team of Patricola and West had a brief series of for Educational between 1935 and 1938, reportedly interchangeable with that of Educational's other musical comedy duo, Timberg and Rooney (curiously not depicted). It seems that Earl Oxford appeared in exactly one short for the studio and I can't find even that many for the amiable looking Fred Lightner (any relation to Winnie? There's a definite resemblance). Singer Niela Goodelle headlined her own series (and appeared at least once with Earl Oxford on Broadway), but I'm unsure about Nell Kelly, another Broadway singer.

This eclectic lineup represents Educational's last gasp. E. W. Hammons, eager to re-enter the features market ever since his 1931-33 partnership with Sennett, gambled it all and lost. In 1938, he merged Educational with Grand National Pictures just as it was sinking into bankruptcy, apparently in a bid to save it. But Grand National's situation was terminal and, when it finally folded in 1939, it took what remained of Educational with it (Fox took over distribution of the Terrytoons). Just a few years later, adding insult to injury, a vault fire at Fox's Deluxe labs destroyed a tremendous number Educational's negatives, all but wiping out the studio's (presumably superior) silent output and erasing most of the film careers of Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane, a staggering blow to the record of the silent era.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Looking For Mabel

Marilyn Slater, the go-to person for all things Mabel Normand, has just debuted Looking For Mabel. It includes a virtual tour of Mabel's LA, Mabel-centric songs, articles, loads of rare images, and Marilyn promises more to come. Mabel Normand, the silent cinema's first great comedienne, is one of those film trailblazers who, until relatively recently, was remembered more as a vague icon of the early silent era than for her specific talents or the body of work she produced. But much like her frequent Keystone co-star Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel and her films are being rediscovered and given their proper due, thanks in no small part to Marilyn's efforts. Her website is a terrific and authoritative introduction for anyone as yet unfamiliar with "Keystone Mabel".

Incidentally, Marilyn Slater is the mastermind behind Fantagraphics' reprints of silent comedian-themed comic strips. There are two 32-page volumes so far, Mabel Normand and Her Funny Friends and Fatty Arbuckle and His Funny Friends, each priced at $4.95 and featuring nifty cover art by Kim Deitch (I want to illustrate these covers!). These strips starring such silent luminaries (and not-so luminescent luminaries) as Normand, Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling, and others, are from the pages of the UK comic weekly Kinema Comic, sister publication of the better-known Film Fun. At $4.95 an issue, you have no excuse not to buy these.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Jack Pearl, The Baron Munchausen of the Air

Few early American radio comedians shone as brightly and burnt out as quickly as Jack Pearl, aka Baron Munchausen. Pearl rose from stage stardom to radio superstardom to film stardom and back to square one in the space of about three years. Not even Joe Penner, the very definition of a one-note 1930s radio comic, fell as quickly from public favor as Pearl. Previously a multi-talented vaudevillian and Ziegfeld headliner, Jack Pearl's radio notoriety rested on his skillful characterization as Baron Munchausen, the famous German teller of tall tales, and his joke-laden attempts to convince his skeptical stooge Cliff Hall, aka "Charlie", of his exploits were practically Pearl's entire radio act. Following every utterance of disbelief from Hall, the Baron would counter with a stern "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" as in:
BARON: Vunce I vas traveling through the Sahara desert, und I met a man mit two heads!

CLIFF: A man with two heads? That's ridiculous, Baron.

BARON: Vass you dere, Sharlie?
The premise of his 1932-33 series was slight, but it allowed Pearl ample opportunity to display his appealing personality, his skill at dialect, and his razor-sharp timing, no more or less than was demanded of other early radio stars such as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn (and Joe Penner got away with even less). In 1933, Jack Pearl's fame had reached such heights that he was summoned to MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, to star in his first feature, Meet The Baron. MGM, in a radio comedy two-fer, had just recently signed Ed Wynn, also at the peak of his radio fame, to appear in The Chief. Of MGM's two 1933 radio-movies, Meet the Baron is the better. The Chief, as abrasive and contrived a comedy as MGM ever made, was so soundly panned by audiences and critics that Wynn wouldn't appear in another live-action film until The Great Man in 1956. Meet the Baron, on the other hand, had charm and some genuine laughs, easily one of the best comedies MGM made in the early 1930s. Pearl plays the Baron as a phony named Julius who, egged on by his pal Jimmy Durante (a teaming that made sense!), cons his way into a speaking engagement at the all-girl Cuddle College. MGM surrounded Pearl with better known faces such as Edna May Oliver (as the College Dean, naturally), Zasu Pitts (Pearl's love interest), and Ted Healy and his stooges who create havoc as the university's not-so-handymen. Even Pearl's old vaudeville comedy partner Ben Bard appears as "Charlie". Pearl's second starring feature for MGM, Hollywood Party (1934), was a legendary disaster in its own time having been helmed by six different directors with a script that was being rewritten almost daily. It was intended to be MGM's comedy answer to their own all star dramatic feature Grand Hotel (1932), but without a strong narrative thread to hold everything together, the film remains little more than a string of weak comedy blackouts with most of the comedians standing apart from each other (Ted Healy and his stooges and Laurel and Hardy interacting?? The mind reels). This time around, the Baron is genuine and has been summoned by fading jungle movie star Shnarzan (Jimmy Durante) to deliver live lions to his party as a publicity gimmick. The talents of everyone involved are wasted with the exceptions of Laurel and Hardy who were fortunate enough to have brought their own director and material with them from Hal Roach. The film even resorts to near-plagiarism with a scene quite a bit more than inspired by the "Hooray For Captain Spaulding" number from the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers (1930).

Ben Bard and Jack Pearl perform their vaudeville
double act in a DeForest Phonofilm of 1926

After appearing in this critically-denounced curiosity, Pearl returned exclusively to the airwaves where he found himself rapidly fading from favor. By September of 1934, his second series, pulling in half the audience of his first, was cancelled. For the next seventeen years, Pearl would struggle to regain the fame he had enjoyed but to no avail. Although he was never really out of work on radio, new series such as Peter Pfeiffer (1935), Jack and Cliff (1948), and The Baron and the Bee (a Munchausen-themed quiz show, 1952), weren't exactly the kinds of vehicles Pearl needed to make his mark in the new character-driven radio comedy world of Jack Benny and Bob Hope. While Ed Wynn found new fame in the 1950s and Joe Penner continued in B comedies until his death in 1940, Jack Pearl was consigned to the radio doldrums for the rest of his career. Pearl's biggest handicap as a performer was his apparent insecurity. Reluctant to give up a "good thing", he continued to fall back on the "liar and stooge" format even as audiences were tuning him out in droves. He refused to experiment or grow as a comedian believing to the end that his German shtick was the key to his success. In the mid-1930s, Jack Benny himself warned Pearl that he was overusing his catchphrase and suggested he give it a rest for a few weeks. "Are you out of your mind?" replied Pearl. "'Vass you dere' is the biggest thing on my show! The listeners can't wait for it! If I don't do it each time, they'll be disappointed!" Pearl's inflexibility is amply illustrated in a bit of newsreel footage excerpted in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's 1987 documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. Likely dating from 1933 when both Keaton and Pearl were under contract at MGM (and sharing Jimmy Durante as co-star), the two comedians appear dockside after an ocean cruise. Pearl is determined to use Buster as his disbelieving stooge in an umpteenth rehashing of his radio shtick, but Buster is having none of it. He deliberately sabotages the bit, apparently after having told Pearl before the camera started rolling that he would play along. Poor Pearl is incapable of recovering after Buster throws him off.
PEARL: Un dere in the middle uv de ocean vas my Aunt Sophie! (waits for straight line, doesn't receive it) Und vat do you think she vas doing there?

KEATON: I haven't the slightest idea...

PEARL: Light-housecleaning! (angrily) Vy don't you say something??
At the end of the clip, Pearl becomes so frustrated that he growls and grabs Buster's face in mock violence. In the coming years, I imagine he felt much the same towards the audience that had deserted him.

Jack Pearl died December 25, 1984.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Geoff Collins Says: A Big Hand For Archie Andrews!

Archie Andrews has recently been sold for £34000. American readers may not be familiar with this name*, so in case you think some sort of white slavery is involved, I'm pleased to report that Archie was a ventriloquist's dummy. Actually this may come as a big shock to any English readers who always thought he was real; sorry, folks, you should get out more.

Archie's "operator" Peter Brough (1916-1999) was a huge success on British radio in the 1950s with Educating Archie** and Archie's the Boy. Ventriloquism on the radio may be a ludicrous concept, but at the time it worked - and it had worked for many years in the States with Edgar Bergen. Archie was a cheeky schoolboy forever causing disruption for the exasperated Brough and a series of "tutors" who comprised, over the years, a Who's Who of Postwar British Comedy: Robert Moreton, Max Bygraves, Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid, Hattie Jacques, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Sid James....

First question: Sid James as a tutor? Yes - you could learn a lot from Sid James. [Insert Sid's distinctive laugh: yack yack yack.]

Second question: Robert Moreton? Never 'eard of 'im! An occasional bit player in British movies - he has a nice close-up and one line in In Which We Serve: "an efficient ship, Sir!" - Moreton developed a hesitant, apologetic upper-class style all his own. Think Derek Nimmo, or Cyril Fletcher without the self-confidence. Sadly his career dipped a bit in the mid 50s and he took his own life. As a consequence he's vanished from comedy history and needs a reappraisal. Perhaps we'll do one.

Third question: What happens when a ventriloquist spends too much time on the radio? You've guessed it: he gradually loses the ability to hide the lip movements - resulting in this apparently genuine exchange, which Ivy heard on the radio only a few days ago :

Brough: Can you see my lips move?

Beryl Reid: Only when Archie's talking...

The early 60s were golden years for ventriloqy, and many of the top names, old and new, began to appear on TV variety shows. We had Saveen and Daisy Mae (excellent; I saw them in a summer show in Hastings); Neville King, being physically attacked by his maniacally aggressive Grandad ("I'm not goin' gack in the gox!"); Arthur Worsley, who just looked glum and "said nothing" whilst being vigorously insulted by the dummy; Shari Lewis (gorgeous!) and "Lamb Chop"; Ray Alan with drunken toff Lord Charles ("you silly arse!") and "Tich and Quackers"; Terry Hall (saw him in Hastings too) with Bert Lahr's close relative "Lenny the Lion"; and best of all, in my opinion, short-lived genius Dennis Spicer. Ah, the glow of nostalgia! A wealth of talent.

In the midst of all this technical virtuosity, Brough did a TV version of Educating Archie in 1958, not for the BBC, but for the commercial channel. This series probably doesn't exist any more and I can't comment on it because (a) I was a baby at the time and (b) my dad didn't get us a television set until January 2, 1959, thereby just missing Christmas and my third birthday.

Thanks, dad.

Don't think I'm still bitter about this or anything....

However I definitely saw Brough and Archie on a later programme; this was probably the Billy Cotton Band Show, in about 1963. What was Brough like? Hopeless! He attempted to hide his flapping lips behind a cigar, but the game was up. I was about 7 or 8 at the time and clearly remember saying to my dad "You can see his lips move!" It was probably this sort of thing that inspired dear old Sandy Powell to develop his "terrible old vent" act; when his hand comes up through the dummy's neck he mutters audibly "I think I've given the game away..."

With so many good vents about, Brough decided it was time to retire. The TV appearance I just mentioned must have been a brief "comeback", as history records that Brough left showbusiness in 1961. Fortunately for him, he had skills in other areas. He was a successful businessman, having inherited a textile business from his dad, another ex-vent, Arthur Grough (sorry, BROUGH) so he took all the money he'd made out of Archie and made loads more out of shirts. Bless his little cotton socks. Come to think of it, he probably made little cotton socks.

Peter Brough's gone now, and his little friend has been silent for many years. But the sale has now taken place, and we can be assured that, someday soon, a new arm will be thrust up inside Archie.

It's exactly what he deserves.

Something else I forgot: it's one of Arthur Brough's dummies that gives Michael Redgrave such a hard time in Dead of Night. I'd like to think Archie was a bit like this offstage.

Just a cotton-pickin' minute. Can you actually believe that I managed to complete an article without mentioning Cyril Fletcher (oops, I did mention him didn't I?), the Finest Art Gallery Outside London, my computer-literate pal Kristian who's ready to give Rubberlegs, my computer, the once-over, and the PATHE WEBSITE???

As I seem to have mentioned the Pathe website, I might as well point out that they have a pre-Archie clip of Brough, from about 1943, and yes, even then he was using the cigar to hide his lips. Let's face it, he was very, very lucky.

Good-gye, Grough.

* ed. note: aside from America's Favorite Teenager, of course.

**ed. note: a free sample episode of Educating Archie is available here. It's like The Goon Show with more catchphrases and less wit.
Be nice and buy something, you cheapskates.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Geoff Collins presents Eddie and Bobby - a Music Hall Mystery

Students of Music Hall and theatre history may be able to shed some light on the following letter, which was recently discovered under a floorboard during renovations to the Primark store in Northampton. The previous building on the site was the New Theatre, which was demolished in 1959-60, although fragments of the original structure remain.

The New Theatre was well known in its time as a Music Hall and variety theatre. Many famous names appeared there, including, on one memorable occasion, Laurel and Hardy.

The identity of the author and the intended recipient of the letter are not at present known, although research is under way.

New Theater, Northampton, England

Dear Eddie

I had intended to write you earlier but I've been very busy rehearsing new material for this comedy act I'm doing with Mr. Collinson. Didn't you come to England once, in '37 or '38 ? I remember you telling me how damp and rainy it was, even in the summer, but nothing prepared me for the cold. It's freezing everywhere. The snow's about a foot deep outside the theater - so we played last night to about twelve people - and there's no heating; and it's been like this here for over two months, which doesn't do much for Mr. Collinson's temperment.He drinks too much and has the most appalling bad breath. He refers to me disparagingly as "Sonny" and never misses an opportunity to compare me unfavorably with his former partner: "Alfie was a lot funnier" - "Alfie would have timed that better" etc. etc. I betcha Alfie was glad when the war started and he had to leave the act. He must have been bored out of his mind.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. We both know I brought this on myself. How I wish I'd heeded your warning. I had a great time on your show. You warned me many times about England, and I should have listened. "Bobby my boy" you said, "don't go. They'll get tired of you, and then what ?" But I didn't care. Two weeks at the London Palladium was too good to resist. I never thought I'd be dragging myself around these awful English hick towns in a crummy double act with a sixty-five-years-old straightman. I'm dressed like some runty little soldier in a huge overcoat, with an outsize walrus mustache - completely unrecognizable. The janitor could play my part. Don't get me wrong - Mr Collinson has been very kind to me but sometimes those stage slaps are hard to take, especially when it's so cold or we have a bad week and he's been drinking. How in the world did I get hooked up with this guy? I guess I took pity on him and let myself get talked into it. Let's face it, a straightman without a comic is pretty desperate.

Last week, for example, we played the Glasgow Empire. Mr Collinson told me about the audience's opinion of English comics: "If they like you, sonny, they'll let you live." We played the entire act to hostile silence, except for the occasional beer bottle or sharpened coin hitting the stage. We did the whole fourteen-minute routine in four minutes and walked off to the sound of our own footsteps. Yet the next act, Dorothy Reid and Mackenzie, an accordion and dancing act, got huge applause. I just don't get it. It wouldn't be so bad if Mr. Collinson let me sing some of my old songs. "Forget it, sonny" he says. "Costs too much. Anyway, it's broad comedy they want, not sentiment." That's not really apparent when he's slapping me all over the stage and the audience doesn't react at all. I mean, some of these people are like neanderthals. We play it as broad as possible but they just don't understand comedy - they're all miners, or auto workers, with caps on and tiny little foreheads.

They make shoes in this town - but the people have no sense of humor at all. Unless it's some sort of "community singalong" - nothing. You might as well be in Siberia. It's cold enough.

Eddie, you've got to get me out of this. Couldn't I come back on your show? We listen to it over here - the one with Jolie was great; I'm surprised he let you say so much. I really miss you and Ida and the girls and Dinah and Bert and all the gang. I can't even get a flight home. Everything's been grounded for weeks due to the bad weather and I haven't saved enough out of what Collinson pays me to buy the ticket anyway. You've got to help me, Eddie, please. I'm stuck here in this godforsaken

The subsequent pages are missing.

Clearly the letter was never sent and may have been left uncompleted as the artistes moved on to another town.Many questions remain unanswered. Was "Bobby" able to escape from the dreary provincial tour with "Mr. Collinson" and return to his former employer "Eddie"?

Who were these people?

We may never know.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bert Wheeler's Worst Movie?

Poor Bert Wheeler. Is it possible that he was so neglected by 1939 that studios had completely forgotten how to cast him in a movie? Last night, courtesy of Bill Sherman, I watched Bert Wheeler's next-to-last feature, The Cowboy Quarterback (1939), for the first time. It is actually worse than I'd expected.. and I've never read anything positive about Cowboy Quarterback. In fact, it may be the most meritless thing Bert Wheeler ever blew his talents on (and, yes, I've seen Too Many Cooks (1931)). One mystery has been solved, however. I'd long wondered who could have been so wrongheaded as to cast Bert Wheeler as a half-wit Nevadan in a football remake of Joe E. Brown's Elmer, the Great (1933). Now it's clear that no one was thinking at all. CC smells like a contractual obligation or a half-assed favor. I can just imagine some Warner's executive saying "Just put him in something cheap and get him out of here!" Whatever the studio's motivations may have been, the film is so slapdash that it seems obvious no one really cared if Bert sank or swam. And it doesn't speak well for Bert's personal fortunes in 1939 that he would have agreed to appear in a 60 minute sub-B comedy in which he has to deliver every line with an absurd drawl.

There is one bright spot between all of this nonsense about Bert Wheeler being a football player from Nevada. About three-quarters of the way through the picture, Bert momentarily drops his "character" and does a variation on his signature vaudeville routine, the "singing a sad song while eating a sandwich" bit. It's a brief if genuine Bert Wheeler moment, but even this pales in comparison with Bert's performance of the same routine in The Diplomaniacs (1933).

Poor Bert. I still think that the one film he could have turned his career around with would have been a musical remake of Charley's Aunt. No comedian ever went wrong with Charley's Aunt.

Bert and his first wife and stage partner Betty in better times, circa 1915

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Harry Langdon's Poverty Row Curtain Call

By 1940, the glory days for Harry Langdon were long past. Once considered a serious rival to Chaplin, Langdon had spent the last decade bouncing around Hollywood, picking up steady, if mostly low-profile, employment. His first work in sound, a series of shorts for Hal Roach, should have been the stepping stone towards resuming work in features. Instead, their poor reception, coupled with his growing reputation as a difficult actor, seemed to eliminate any possibility of further work as a star attraction in feature films. While he did secure the occasional plum role in features, such as his wonderful Communist sanitation worker in Al Jolson's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (1933), he spent most of the years before his death in 1944 as a star of modest shorts at RKO, Paramount, Educational, and Columbia. Perhaps more fortuitous was his work as a gag man and scenarist for his friend Stan Laurel. His name appears in the credits for the Laurel and Hardy features Block-Heads (1938), The Flying Deuces (1939), A Chump at Oxford (1940), and Saps at Sea (1940), and film historian Glenn Mitchell has suggested that Laurel's hiring of Langdon may in part have been repayment for his perceived "debt" to Langdon's similar screen persona. It's also to be assumed that when Langdon appeared opposite Babe Hardy in Zenobia (1939) during Laurel's extended absence from Roach, it was with Laurel's tacit approval. On all of the aforementioned Laurel and Hardy films, Langdon shares script and/or story credit with Charley Rogers, one of Stan Laurel's closest friends and former director of the bulk of Langdon's failed series for Roach. Rogers, born in Birmingham, England in 1887, was a former music hall comedian and, aside from directing and writing at the Roach studios, had been appearing in bit roles there from 1928 on, his gaunt figure and stern and hawkish features making him ripe for such mock-dignified roles as butlers, parsons, and prime ministers. This was far from his first work as a film actor, however. Rogers' screen career began rather auspiciously with his role as the Artful Dodger in the earliest known American feature film, Oliver Twist, in 1912. But more about the dour Charley Rogers in a moment.

In 1940, Harry Langdon was given his first starring role in a feature since Heart Trouble in 1928. Granted, it wasn't for one of the Big Four studios in Hollywood; in fact, it was for Producers Releasing Corporation, a studio that rested, arguably, at the bottom of the Poverty Row barrel, but it was a genuine opportunity for Langdon, nonetheless. One wonders how Langdon ended up at PRC in the first place. Did he approach PRC or vice-versa? I suspect the latter as Misbehaving Husbands bears no resemblance in form or tone to any other Harry Langdon feature and feels as if it may have been written with someone else, or maybe no one, in mind. Misbehaving Husbands is a comedy of errors and variations on its razor-thin plot would fuel the first decade of mediocre TV sitcoms. Harry appears as Henry Butler, absent-minded manager of a successful department store. Henry is so wrapped up in his work that he forgets his wedding anniversary and misses the surprise party his wife Effie (Betty Blythe) is throwing that night. Two of the partygoers just happen to be passing by Henry's department store when Henry just happens to be working with one of the store's models just behind a backlit shade in a display window. The gossipy partygoers immediately head to the party where they spread hushed innuendo about Henry's whereabouts. Meanwhile, Henry has accidentally broken one of the store's female mannequins, nicknamed "Carol". After taking it to a waxworks to get it repaired, he's detained by the police who want to know what he's done with the "body" that bystanders saw in the back of his car. According to the rules of cheap comedy, Henry is forced to refer to the mannequin as "she" and "Carol" and never as "the mannequin" which results in his interrogation lasting hours. By the time he's done, the party is over and Effie has been nearly convinced by her newly-divorced friend Grace (Esther Muir) that Henry is a philandering filthbag. When Henry returns home with the mannequin's high-heeled shoe and garter, Effie decides to take Grace's advice and get a divorce. But Grace's divorce lawyer, Gilbert Wayne (Gayne Whitmer), is a conman who plants false evidence to make sure the couple splits. As neither Henry or Effie will relinquish the house, Effie's niece (Luana Walters) and law student Bob Grant (Ralph Byrd at his Dick Tracyest) are appointed live-in witnesses to testify that the couple are separated . Together they foil the lawyer's scheme, get Henry and Effie back together, and, as is required by B movie law, fall in love. The script by Vernon Smith and Claire Parrish is from hunger and there are almost no laugh lines in the film's 58 minute running time. Given that the script provides so little for the actors to work with, in the hands of another actor, the role of Henry Butler could have been quite colorless. But as Langdon's special appeal as a comedian lay in his unique performance style rather than any particular verbal "turn", Langdon is easily capable of making the role his own. Henry Butler as performed by Langdon, is a kind of demystified version of his silent "baby" character, now grown, believably married, and with real world responsibilities, but still innocently endearing. His intelligence is never questioned; in fact, his glasses give him a bookish appearance. He's mild-mannered but capable of successfully managing his department store through his own fussy doggedness, and that he would also have a (mostly) successful marriage is reasonable due to those same traits (Betty Blythe plays Effie as similarly mild if more levelheaded). He's still a comic innocent, though, and many of the plot complications are due to his innate naivete. The gestural trademarks of his silent films are also intact, especially the hand placed pensively to the mouth in worry and the jerky, unsure movements. Harry's stuttering speech nicely reflects his semiconscious, barely controlled body language, but is much more toned down here than in his shorts in which he's often hilariously unintelligible. If anything, Harry's "adult" character bears a close resemblance to that of Victor Moore, if much more eccentric. In one of Misbehaving Husbands' better moments, Harry angrily asserts himself to Effie's lawyer after he suggests Harry keep quiet. Harry winds into motion, accenting his speech with exaggerated and deliberate gestures, as if mimicking someone else's half-remembered tirade, doing his best to make sure people understand that he's angry. "I can't open my mouth in my own home?? Well, let me tell you something! I'm a free American citizen! I pay taxes! And I have a right to free speech! And liberty! And, uh, pursuit of happiness n' all that stuff!!" Flying off the handle, he storms around the room, pounding the furniture. "I paid for this! AND THAT! AND THAT!!" But in the process, Harry accidentally topples a small figurine from a table. The moment it hits the floor, his rage is gone. He quickly sits down, hands in his lap, fearing the consequences. Look.. I know this doesn't sound funny. Whatever subtle and mysterious personal tics make Langdon's comedy effective are notoriously hard to describe in text. I refuse to accept responsibility.

The billing for Misbehaving Husbands is peculiar. Unquestionably the star, Langdon gets first billing in the film itself (although not above the title), but he takes third billing behind Ralph Byrd and Esther Muir on the poster and in promotional materials. While Byrd was a draw in 1940, Muir was most certainly not. In England, where the film was well received, Misbehaving Husbands was not only promoted as a full-blown Harry Langdon comedy, but also as his first talking picture!

"Who is telling this story, anyway?" "He is.."

The following year found Harry Langdon at a little further up Poverty Row at Monogram, home of Johnny Mack Brown and the East Side Kids. This time around, the film was tailor-made for Langdon, and although Double Trouble bills Harry alone above the title, he actually appears as one half of a team with his old friend Charley Rogers. How this came about is a mystery, but it's certainly not impossible that Rogers and Langdon's mutual friend Stan Laurel made the suggestion that they give it a go. As Laurel and Hardy gagmen, perhaps they acted out the routines in gag sessions and someone felt they were good enough at it to make a buck or two. Laurel and Hardy certainly seem to have been the inspiration. Although unique enough in his own sour and reproachful way, Rogers can be seen as a fast-talking, skinny, and British Babe Hardy. Langdon comes full circle in his role in the partnership as pseudo-Stan. Harry Langdon, of course, is still Harry Langdon, more now than ever. He wears a close approximation of his silent costume, and even though he is now almost sixty-two, in several scenes he almost looks as eerily young as he did in 1927. The only nod to his new role as Rogers' comedy partner is a mock-British accent, mercifully dropped and forgotten after a few early scenes. In Double Trouble, Rogers and Langdon are brothers Bert and Alf Prattle, refugees from the London blitz. They've been adopted by blustery California bean tycoon John Whitmore (Frank Jaquet) and his wife (Mira McKinney) who were mislead to believe Bert and Alf were children. They even have a nursery all set up for them. It's a humorous misunderstanding rife with comic potential! Meanwhile, Whitmore's daughter Peggy (Catherine Lewis) has fallen for her father's key advertising man, the wisecracking Sparky Marshall (Dave O'Brien, best remembered as reporter Johnny Layton from The Devil Bat with Bela Lugosi), and unless Sparky can win her father's respect, there will be no wedding. Sparky comes up with a scheme to have the bean company sponsor a extremely valuable necklace, cleverly taking advantage of the association between beans and valuable jewelry. Rogers and Langdon have been given jobs in the Whitmore cannery and, by some convoluted contrivance, Harry ends up putting the necklace in an empty bean can as a surprise for a pretty coworker he has been flirting with (clip here). The can accidentally ends up getting sealed and sent to market. With only Harry's handwritten note to the coworker on the top of the can to identify it, a nationwide treasure hunt ensues. Bean sales skyrocket. But Rogers and Langdon must find the can before a consumer does. By another contrivance, they manage to track it down to a waterfront cafe and, by dressing as unconvincing women, retrieve it. All ends happily. Rogers and Langdon display an obvious camaraderie, but although their moments as a team show a clear debt to Laurel and Hardy, their partnership takes a backseat to Langdon's solo turns. This is not exactly a bad thing. Rogers and Langdon introduce themselves to Mrs. Whitmore with a cute if extremely strange speech, punctuated by Harry's hiccuping, about how they survived after the ship they were traveling on was torpedoed. As an introductory setpiece, it's their least Laurel and Hardy-ish, but it's not particularly funny, either. In a somewhat better moment as a team, Harry and Charley are sleeping on the floor of their nursery (after having demolished their cribs) when a gust of wind sweeps an inflatable pool toy into the room. For reasons beyond human understanding, the pool toy hovers menacingly in the air over the two men for ages. Harry is the first to notice, and his abstract logic sounds suspiciously Laurel-like.

Harry: Hey, Alf.. Sorry to disturb you, but did you ever have a nightmare?

Charley: Yes. I had one in London before we left.

Harry: Did it like you?

Charley: Did it like me? How do I know?

Harry: Well, its followed you over here. Look up and see if you recognize it as the same one.

At the brothers flee, the now clearly lighter-than-air (and possibly possessed) toy becomes attached to Harry's nightshirt. Hilarity ensues. While hardly approaching the quality of Langdon's silent work, Double Trouble has a lot of charm, exemplified by the Music Hall-themed opening credit sequence in which you can hear the orchestra warming up before kicking into the overture. And thanks to Monogram's legendary laxity, it also features Harry flipping the bird. Can't beat that!

Oh, Harry.. don't! Clik pik to see Harry flip the bird!

Although it does have its moments, charm is something seriously lacking from the second and final Rogers and Langdon film, House Of Errors, produced the same year at PRC. The story is credited to Harry Langdon but, aside from a few unique touches, it could have been the work of any PRC scenarist. Charley and Harry are again Bert and Alf, now working as newspaper deliverymen who dream of becoming full-fledged reporters. Overhearing a conversation between the editor and a reporter about a miraculous new machine gun being developed by a local inventor, Bert and Alf head out to get the scoop. They plant themselves in the inventor's house as a valet and butler and soon find themselves competing for the story with another reporter, the smoothtalking lowlife Jerry Fitzgerald (played by the unbelievably obnoxious Ray Walker). Jerry has his eye on the inventor's daughter Florence (Marian Marsh) who happens to be engaged to a lowlife cad who wants to sell the gun to the Axis forces, etc.. Rogers and Langdon are much less of a team this time around. Harry has a lot of fairly funny solo turns, but Rogers' character has been streamlined into a standard disapproving straightman with dialogue consisting primarily of variations on "What are you doing now??". Among the better comic set-ups is an extended, and completely peripheral, scene in a flophouse. Harry can't get comfortable unless a large picture hanging on the wall behind the beds is properly straightened. He walks precariously along the molding on the wall, trying to align the picture while simultaneously trying not to fall off onto the occupants of the beds below. Monte Collins, another Columbia shorts veteran, also appears in this sequence as the requisite Owner-of-a-Flea-Circus-in-a-Flophouse who loses his "performers". While the plot Langdon concocted for House of Errors is perfunctory at best, the film's bizarre ending does reflect his taste for the macabre. Florence and her fiance, the Villainous Cad, are eloping in a biplane (she was in no way coerced and has shown little indication that she likes Jerry). Harry accidentally shoots it out of the sky with the machine gun, sending it crashing through the roof of the inventor's house. Inside, irritating Jerry rescues Florence from the wreckage of the plane and they embrace.. and behind them you can see the lifeless body of the villain hanging from the second cockpit! An explosion causes Florence to faint into Harry's lap where he "grabs" kisses from her lips and "eats" them.

click the picture for high-strangeness

While this was the last feature Langdon starred in, it wasn't his final appearance in features. He turned up in supporting character roles in three more features for Monogram, Spotlight Scandals (1943), Hot Rhythm and Block Busters (both 1944), and his last, Swingin' On a Rainbow (1945, released after his death), for Republic. The decision to withdraw from starring roles in features likely rested with Langdon and not PRC or Monogram. Harry Langdon was still a audience draw in the early 40s, if a minor one, and his three B features could not have lost money for either studio, considering their shoestring budgets. As Langdon's continuing work for PRC and Monogram testifies, he was more than welcome to stay. But it's highly likely that Langdon was paid scarcely more for these features than what he was receiving at Columbia for work in short subjects which required less time to shoot (although probably not much less). The meager salary and the extended shooting schedules would have made this a simple economic decision for Langdon, who continued to appear in more financially reasonable supporting roles. But it's a pity that Rogers and Langdon didn't continue as a team. Undeveloped as their partnership was, the spark for something better was there, something that cannot be said for Langdon's notorious teaming with Swedish dialect comic El Brendel at Columbia. And, as threadbare as these final starring features may be, they show that Langdon was in fine form well past his accepted prime. Despite weak stories, cheap sets, and lousy gags, Harry Langdon was funny to the end. Take that, Capra.

Happily for we obsessive comedy obscureologists, both Double Trouble and House of Errors are available on DVD from Grapevine Video for a mere 9.95 each. Even better, Misbehaving Husbands is available at for free. Truly, we live in a age of wonders.

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