Saturday, January 28, 2006


For those of you who may have forgotten my previous post, Marilyn Slater is the go-to person for all things Mabel Normand and her site, Looking For Mabel, is a wonderful testimony to the power of obsessiveness in the service of classic comedy research (it's also a reminder of how scattershot I am about classic comedy.. I envy her ability to stay focused). What I love about Marilyn's meticulous Mabel-centric research is how it leads, also, to a better understanding of Mabel's contemporaries and pre-War Hollywood as a whole. Her now regularly-updated Mabel Normand blog demonstrates that nicely as it has thus far covered the Keystone studio, Mabel's possible association with the Pasadena Rose Parade, the Aitken Brothers, and Mabel's good friend, fellow actress, and Roscoe Arbuckle's first wife Minta Durfee (Minta was still appearing in movies as late as 1971 and was represented by the Beverly Hecht Agency. Who knew?). I'm particularly fond of some of Mabel's strikingly sad poetry that Marilyn has uncovered. Be sure to check Marilyn's blog out frequenly as she has promised much, much more to come. Heck.. keep your eye on the whole darn site. You won't be disappointed.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Sins of Pinky Lee

click on the thumbnails for the full-sized images, you filthy degenerates!

I found this two-page spread about burlesque comic and kidvid host Pinky Lee in the Jan-Feb, 1952 issue of Hit! magazine. Hit! was one of those proto-Playboy magazines or the late 40s and early 50s that featured goofy double-entendres, poorly drawn cartoons, and dozens of dowdy looking women in baggy bikinis, all presumably extremely arousing to your average 1950s blue collar joe. What I find fascinating about this spread is that it demonstrates how Pinky was able to effectively balance his careers as burlesque top banana extraordinaire and Ultimate Kiddie TV Host without raising the ire of Mom or the censors. As the Pete Smith-style captions illustrate, Pinky, he of the permanent and pronounced lithp, was promoted as something of a naive man-child in the mold of Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon, just too damn innocent to really know what it's all about. This contrast between innocent naif and pulchritudinous damsels is what made Pinky Lee's burlesque career click and, although the irony was lost entirely when he became a children's entertainer, Pinky was, no matter what the setting, a safe and squeaky clean comic. has a fun Pinky Lee 78, Inkas the Ramferinkas, available that'll give you a good impression of the little goon's vocal style. Physically, he was a dynamo, a comic who literally knocked himself out to entertain. Be sure to check him out in the otherwise awful Lady Of Burlesque (1943) starring Barbara Stanwyck.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Geoff Collins Takes a Belt in the Back

I just had a quick look at that big fat lump of an MGM biopic The Great Ziegfeld which has recently become available on DVD here. It had to be a quick look, as I couldn't afford to take three days off work to watch all of it. Several things stood out, the most notable being: thank God for the fast-forward button. But it seems odd to me that the real Fanny Brice, a genuine Ziegfeld star in a rare movie appearance, has both her musical numbers annoyingly curtailed and interrupted by dialogue; while a fake Eddie Cantor does a complete, uninterrupted turn. This is great news for fans of faux-Cantor Buddy Doyle, who does a very good job, but why isn't the real Cantor in the movie? After all, it's an affectionate tribute to his much-loved former employer. Two possible reasons: (a) he couldn't do it as he was contractually tied to Sam Goldwyn; or (b) he asked MGM for too much money, so they told him to go away and replaced him with a lookalike.

Why do I suspect the latter to be the case? Am I just an old cynic?

I recently unearthed (in Newport Pagnell, in England!) a copy of the May 11, 1949 Variety. Have a look at the following article, and see if you reach the same conclusions.

click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image

Cantor did indeed perform the skit with Louis Sorin in Glorifying the American Girl. It's still there, in the movie, and a bit of it can be glimpsed in Michael Kantor's Broadway - the American Musical, episode 2. It has the feel of a classic routine, and in the hands of Cantor (much more New York Jewish than usual) and Sorin, it's very funny. But who wrote it?

As much as I love Eddie Cantor, I just don't believe his version. Look what Lew Earn hearned for the routine: a couple of thousand dollars here and there, maybe a bit more from Ken Murray. What did Cantor get? $20,000 in one go, for doing the sketch in the movie, plus all the other payments earlier in the 20s.

It's a well-documented fact that Lou Costello crammed as many old burlesque/vaudeville routines as he possibly could into the Abbott and Costello TV show - which he owned - in order to gain ownership of all the old routines as well. We can't really complain about this; in doing so, he preserved the material. But was Cantor doing this as well? He didn't need the money; he must have been financially well ahead of Lew Hearn, who's now a totally obscure name (the archaeologists amongst you can find a silent clip of him on the Pathe website). Sorry Eddie, this wasn't your finest hour; you got the $20,000 and you're still prepared to sacrifice a friendship to get a bit more. You're a ba-aa-aad boy!

On this same subject, let's go back a few years, to London, 1943, and the first film appearance of the non-classic Northern double-act whose names are always spelled incorrectly: the correct spelling - and please, all of you, never get it wrong again - is JIMMY JEWEL and BEN WARRISS. The film, which, incidentally, gives Jimmy's name in the credits as "Jimmie Jewell", is Rhythm Serenade, a vehicle for whiny Forces' Favourite Vera Lynn, a popular singer of the time who appears, whether we want her to or not, in every 40s compilation going, and who reminds elderly Brits of the dark days of World War Two - mainly because her voice sounds like an Air Raid siren. She couldn't act either - I mean she really couldn't - and in the film the poor girl is woodenly pushed around from one inept dramatic situation to the next, with occasional "comic" relief from Jewel and Warriss. And what do they do ?

Jimmy says he doesn't like mustard (he pronounces it "moostered") and Ben browbeats him with a long tirade about little girls, thirteen, fourteen years old, slaving away day and night to "manufacture moostered". Sounds familiar? Didn't Bud and Lou do this same routine in One Night in the Tropics - and on their TV show? Elsewhere in Rhythm Serenade, Jimmy and Ben do a variation on Clayton, Jackson and Durante's "Wood Wood Wood"; and they were also famous for a Blackpool summer show "waterproof watch" routine (to prove its efficiency, pushy salesman Ben submerges would-be customer Jimmy in a huge glass water tank). Very amusing, but just a minute - didn't Milton Berle do this in Always Leave Them Laughing? And didn't Sid Caesar - and later Bert Lahr - do this on Broadway in Make Mine Manhattan? Poor Bert; he was always being ripped off. Most of the sketches in Always Leave Them Laughing were originally his (all he gets to do is a brief version of his old cop routine, and he lights up the entire film) and Berle also lifted his stock market sketch in New Faces of 1937. The list is endless.

The Pathe website [oh no! I mentioned it again] has examples of the excellent British double-act Collinson and Dean performing routines associated with Bud and Lou - but ten years earlier. They do a version of "7 x 13=28"; and there's another routine in which the ordinarily stodgy old straightman Bill Collinson displays wonderfully crisp mental agility as he invents all sorts of nonsensical "deductions" (holidays, lunch hours) in order to deprive employee Alfie Dean of his wages; so poor Alfie ends up with no wages at all for a year's work. Sounds familiar? Didn't Bud and Lou do this same routine in One Night in the.... Wait a minute - I said all that before. My God, it's contagious. I'm stealing material from myself!

Bill Collinson "wrote" their material; but the biographical details on a contemporary cigarette card provide the most likely solution to "how Collinson wrote Abbott and Costello's routines ten years before they existed". He'd toured extensively in American vaudeville in the 1920s; so he probably remembered all this great material (or if he was as crafty as I think he was, wrote it all down at the time) and recycled it for himself and Alfie.

This discussion could go on forever. I suppose we should be grateful that all these classic bits are on film and no matter who performs them, they're a pleasure to watch, and they remind us of the comedy of a bygone age. It all happened more than sixty years ago, and we'll never know the true authorship of much of it. But who did write "Belt in the Back"? Cantor? Lew Hearn? Some forgotten, neglected American burlesque comedian?

Or Bill Collinson?

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Monday, January 23, 2006

"Tonight the show is gonna be different, Graham!"

I’ve written recently about Jack Pearl, “The Baron Munchausen of the Air”, one of the comedians who, along with Joe Penner, Eddie Cantor, and Ed Wynn, dominated American radio in 1932-34. While Pearl may have been a formidable talent, his rigid adherence to a limited characterization and format doomed him to obscurity in the same way that Joe Penner’s over-dependence on silly catchphrases made him the poster child for flash-in-the-pan celebrities. Ed and Eddie, however, fared much better over time. Unlike Pearl and Penner, both had been household names as Broadway celebrities before ever finding fame on radio. Well after the demise of their radio series, Wynn and Cantor found newfound fame on TV in the early 50s, and Ed Wynn even went on to carve out a new career for himself as a character actor. What they shared, and what Pearl and Penner seriously lacked, were stage personalities that came across to listeners as genuine and warm. In contrast, Jack Pearl and Joe Penner performed characters that were markedly artificial, burdened with self-conscious accents or verbal tics. Cantor, especially, eschewed performance gimmicks on radio, preferring to trade, rather, on his public persona as rags-to-riches underdog and incorporating specifics of his personal life into his act, something that made his listeners feel like trusted confidants. For audiences of the early 30s, Ed Wynn represented the best of both worlds; endearingly clownish and unreal and yet, at the same time, compellingly authentic. In actuality, Ed Wynn’s fluttery stage persona was as much a performance as Pearl’s arrogant German adventurer, but so consistent, well-realized, and attractive was Wynn’s “Perfect Fool” that whether or not he behaved similarly in real life was of little consequence to listeners. For the time, they needed to believe in him.

The catalyst for both the first great flowering of American radio and the tremendous popularity enjoyed by Wynn, Cantor, Pearl, et al, was the Great Depression. The nation’s seemingly insatiable hunger for escapist entertainment catapulted comics who specialized in “nut” acts to unprecedented heights of popularity. The sillier and the more outrageous the better, and none was sillier or more accessible than Ed Wynn. Starting in 1932, at 9:30 on Tuesdays, Wynn dominated the airwaves as The Fire Chief on the ultimate escapist radio series of the Depression. His half-hour show was sponsored by Texaco, and his Fire Chief ‘character’ (Wynn wearing a fire chief’s helmet) a tie-in with Texaco’s Fire Chief gasoline brand. There were no stories and, aside from Ed Wynn and his amiable announcer and straightman Graham McNamee, no recurring characters. What the show delivered were jokes and music. The format, which some critics have called crude and which I prefer to view as elegantly simple, consisted of alternating blocs of vaudeville-style patter between Wynn and McNamee and music from the Fire Chief Quartet and Donald Voorhees and the Fire Chief Band. At the show’s conclusion, McNamee would read joke letters to the Chief, asking his advice on anything from anything from the stock market to rare animals. The show, one of the earliest to be broadcast with an audience, began invariably with Wynn emerging from the wings and saying “I’m the Chief again, Graham, and tonight’s program is gonna be different!” It never really was, of course. As soon as the applause had died down, Wynn and McNamee would immediately launch into a routine.

McNamee: Chief, what did you do over the weekend?

Wynn: Oh, I took a vacation! I went down to the Atlantic Ocean, Graham. I had a room facing the ocean: the Pacific. I went on a two-day fishing trip, y’know.

McNamee: Catch any fish, Chief?

Wynn: Oh, well, the first day I was training the fish to eat off the hook, y’know..

McNamee: Any luck the second day?

Wynn: Well. I caught a flounder but I threw it right back, Graham.

McNamee: Why’d you throw a flounder back?

Wynn: (laughs) Well, I didn’t want a fish that had been stepped on, don’t y’see?

McNamee: The oyster season started down there last month, didn’t it, Chief?

Wynn: No, Graham, it started two months ago!

McNamee: You’re wrong, Chief. The oyster season begins in the first month that has an ‘R’ in it.

Wynn: That’s right.

McNamee: That’s September!

Wynn: No! What about R-gust?

McNamee: You can waste time catching your fish, Chief. I’ll buy mine in the market!

Wynn: Well, I’m glad you said ‘market’, Graham. Really, I’ve got a brand new song I want Don to play about the butcher… the market made me think of the butcher song... The name of it is “Butcher Arms Around Me”!

Ed Wynn, who also wrote the series, allowed it to develop organically. Unlike Joe Penner and Jack Pearl's catchphrases, the running gags and catchphrases on Wynn's Fire Chief program were usually the result of natural on-air flubs. Wynn's famous drawn out "so-o-o-o-o-o" line was initially a goof caused by mike fright that Wynn decided to retain because of the huge laugh it received. Likewise, Graham McNamee flubbed one of his Texaco sales pitches and referred to "Fire Chief gasoloon" leading to a long running gag. Also adding to the sense of naturalism on Wynn's show was his apparent impatience with McNamee's Texaco ads, a sentiment probably shared by most of the audience. Wynn would talk through the backgrounds of McNamee's Texaco pitches, interjecting comments such as "oh, there he goes again" and "You just said that, Graham!". Often, a joke would be worked into the sales pitch helping to make the ad more palatable and also to smooth over the transitions.

In 1933, at the peak of his popularity, Ed Wynn was being tuned-in weekly by nearly half of the nation’s total radio audience, numbers beaten only by Amos N’ Andy, also being broadcast by NBC. But by 1935, the series had been cancelled and, for all intents and purposes, Ed Wynn's radio career was finished. Wynn's downfall has often been ascribed to audiences' rapidly changing tastes in comedy. By the time his Fire Chief program ended, America was warming to the character-based situation comedies of Jack Benny which offered not only gags but stories and large casts of characters. Wynn wasn't exactly incapable of making such a transition as he would later prove, but it never even seems to have occurred to him. All three of his 1935-37 follow-up series, Gulliver, Ed Wynn's Grab Bag, and The Perfect Fool, recycled the Fire Chief format of vaudeville patter and music. But just as likely to have killed Ed Wynn's radio career was the then-unknown concept of media saturation. 1933, Wynn's ratings peak, was also the year MGM released the gruelingly unfunny The Chief, starring Wynn and 'based' on the radio series. It was a legendary box office bomb, one of MGM's all-time worst comedies (and that's saying something!). At the same time, Wynn was making news by attempting to start his own radio network to put unemployed actors and actresses to work, a noble cause killed by financial mismanagement. I find it likely that by 1934, changing tastes or not, people were looking for excuses to not listen to Ed Wynn. Eager for something new, they moved on. Ed Wynn, however, couldn't. For Wynn, the latter half of the 30s were the darkest years of his life. Rejected by his audience, his marriage in ruins, and his star descending on Broadway, Wynn sank into a deep depression. A 1944-45 radio series, Happy Island, was an improvement over his previous network failures as it featured stories and a recurring cast of performers (including a young Jim Backus), but it received poor ratings and was off the air after only twenty-six weeks. It would be another four years before Ed Wynn was finally 'rediscovered' by the new medium of television.

To hear an episode of The Texaco Fire-Chief Program starring Ed Wynn for free, visit here.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Geoff Collins NEARLY Discovers Duggie Wakefield

Last night Ivy and I did something we've never done before - and if I'd suggested this sort of thing to my ex-wife, she would have been disgusted and horrified.

We watched a Laurel and Hardy movie.

It was Sons of the Desert, that classic opus which has spawned thousands of bowler-hatted twats in "tents" all over the world, and I don't need to comment on it any further other than to say that Ivy thought it was hilarious; by the end of it she genuinely cared about their characters, and she now refers to them as Stan and Ollie. This is a major achievement; most women, in my experience, pretend to be fans of Laurel and Hardy, in order to appear polite, and then refer to them as "the fat one" and "the thin one". Jesus Christ. It makes your flesh creep.

But let's not talk any more about The Boys. They don't need our help; they're hardly Third Banana material as they're universally recognized (except by most women!) as great comedians. So we'll move swiftly on to the main point of our discussion.

Having watched this marvellous movie once again after an absence of several years, curiosity got the better of me and I had a flick through Randy Skredvedt's Laurel and Hardy - the Magic Behind the Movies... where on page 269 there's a production shot of the parade scene, with Babe, director William Seiter, Stan, and a little fellow described as "English comic Billy Nelson". Billy Nelson? The old memory bank is suddenly open for business; the pieces of a forgotten puzzle are starting to fit into place.

Leonard Maltin's The Great Movie Shorts, page 4, has a photo (with no accompanying text) of Hal Roach's All-Star Trio: Don Barclay, Douglas Wakefield, and Billy Nelson.

Douglas Wakefield? That's a bit formal; let's call him Duggie. Most people did anyway. It seems a bit odd for me to be writing about one of the very few 1930s comedians I've never seen on film, but this is where our readers can help. Duggie was born in Sheffield in 1899 (or 1901 - again, it depend on which version you read) and died in 1951. He started as a child performer in Gerald Mount's Juveniles, alongside Alfie Dean (see Alfie's obituary elsewhere on this site). He was a small, turned-up-nosed "gormless" Northern slapstick comedian - and he was Gracie Fields' brother-in-law, which probably accounts for his appearance in Gracie's films This Week of Grace and Look Up and Laugh. Without Gracie's help, he starred in an approved-by-Halliwell solo starring vehicle, Spy For a Day, as well as some cheapies (mostly lost, but The Penny Pool still survives) for Northern crap-movie-merchants Mancunian; details can be found under He toured in British variety for many years in knockabout sketches,accompanied by a team of stooges: Chuck O'Neil, Jack Butler and Billy Nelson; and by some miracle (did Stan invite these fellow-Northerners over?) by October 1933, when Sons of the Desert was being filmed, Duggie and Billy Nelson were in Hollywood, working for Hal Roach.

"Google" is wonderful if you know how to use it - and I'm still learning. You can type in a word and get eight million references. Nevertheless, with judicial use of inverted commas, I typed in "Wakefield " "Hal Roach" "Billy Nelson" [sic] and tracked down the following movies, all two-reelers:

Twin Screws (1933) directed by James Parrott; with Duggie, Billy, and Jack Barty (another unique English comedian, the mad butler in Oliver the Eighth)

Crooks' Tour [no apostrophe is shown so I'm assuming there's more than one crook] (1933) directed by Robert F. McGowan; with Duggie, Billy, and Gertrude Astor [a tall, lovely Goddess, so memorable in The Strong Man]

Mixed Nuts (1934) directed by James Parrott; with Duggie, Billy, Jack Barty - and am I right in assuming a guest appearance by The Boys Themselves? Why else would this movie be on "Laurel and Hardy - The Lost Films; Volume Seven"? Help me out, readers!

I'll Be Suing You (1934) directed by Gus Meins; starring Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly; with Duggie and Billy.

And that's it, really. Or is it? There may be more Roaches lurking in the archives [what a horrendous prospect!] Presumably after their Hollywood adventure, Duggie and Billy went back to the British variety circuit; Look Up and Laugh was made in 1935. But their Hal Roach two-reelers still exist. If any of you have seen these movies, or anything else featuring Duggie Wakefield, let's hear from you. As Bud Abbott often says "Do I have to do all the work?"

Come on, readers. Duggie didn't do anything for Pathe, unfortunately; but ANYONE who starred in Hal Roach two-reelers, no matter how obscure, has to be considered for some sort of immortality.

Duggie's a rare one. Let's find out how good he really was.

Help us out.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Observations on Ted Healy

One of the nicest compliments I'd received for my now-dead Ted Healy page was that Ted, were he alive, would likely have slapped my back hard enough to sting, bought me a stiff drink, and then done something absolutely horrible and emotionally scarring to me. Ted Healy, Bobby Clark, and Paul McCullough are the three comedians who really sparked my interest in comedy obscureology. It's inexplicable that they all aren't better known, but Ted's relative obscurity is the most curious and disturbing of all to me. Clark and McCullough are an acquired taste, admittedly, and I'm speaking as one of their biggest boosters. Even their best films undoubtedly pale in relation to their stage work, and Bobby, especially, is a Broadway personality confined in a celluloid prison, a personality rather too bold and alien (not to mention alienating) for the intimacies of film. But Ted Healy was simply born to be a film star, and it was apparent even in his silent 1926 "tryout", Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes, for Hal Roach. He's real, engaging, fascinating, and frequently terrifying. The two-dimensional boundary of the screen vanishes for Ted, a comedian so direct and modern.. some would say postmodern.. that it's a shock to me that he isn't better regarded today, the effects of the smear campaign notwithstanding. You can see his influence on television even now, his legacy most apparent in comic MCs such as Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. Healy was certainly one of the first to shatter the accepted role of the performer as Performer, destroying the barrier between comedian and audience. After all, what did he do? Bert Wheeler was a song and dance man, Eddie Cantor a wisecracking singer, W. C. Fields a juggler; what was Ted Healy? Ted's right to the limelight was assured simply because he was a funny man, not a man who expertly told funny jokes or funny stories. Ted Healy scarcely cared about jokes, had no patience for them. In Soup To Nuts, you can see for yourself his impatience with the "laff lines" and his eagerness not to dwell on them. The stooges were the joke-machines of the act, near parodies of slapshoe vaudeville comedians, and Ted was just as much their audience as the actual audience was. His reactions to their calculated inanity became the vicarious reaction of the crowd; their emotional release as well. The stooges.. Sanborn, Howard, Howard, Fine, Howard, Hakins, Wolf, Garner, etc.. were living props, and Ted made sure an audience understood that they deserved every last slap. As purveyors of the oldest and/or stalest and/or lamest jokes known to mankind, or for simply attempting to upstage the headliner, it was Ted's job.. his honor.. to stand up for the audience and slap the stooges silly. If Curly or Freddy comes skittering across the stage, mugging like a maniac, in the middle of Ted's song, he's asking for trouble; so why the hell not give it to him? That's what he's there for! No one is asking for sympathy. I can't imagine a single audience member in Ted's entire stage career standing up and saying "Hey, you big bully! Leave that little guy alone!" That Howard, Fine, and Howard are famous today for being, frankly, atavistic, albeit talented, clowns while Healy, an innovator, true eccentric, and probably genius, is a footnote in their careers says something too depressing about life for me to contemplate.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Geoff Collins Revisits The Producers - and Says "What If?"

Further to my earlier ramblings on the subject, I feel the movie version of The Producers is such an excellent Broadway-to-Hollywood transfer that it would have been entirely at home in that early-talkie period when Hollywood was raiding the New York stage for something - anything - to turn into a movie musical. So here's a "What If". Please feel free to contribute to this.

Of course, in the late twenties, the hoped-for flop would have to be Springtime For Hindenburg.

What if The Producers had been a Broadway show in 1928, and a movie in 1930? Who would play Max and Leo? And to get you started, here are a few combinations to consider.

RKO Radio's version; Max : Robert Woolsey. Leo: Bert Wheeler. Now there's a controversial choice - but think about it; a good combination of brashness and innocence. It wouldn't be wonderful, but it would be funny and efficient.

Hal Roach's version; Max: Oliver Hardy. Leo: Stan Laurel. Now that would be sublime, but the movie would be five hours long. Forget it. How about...

Educational's version; Max: Joe Cook. Leo: Harry Langdon. Oh, for a time machine! Here's an even better one - and God knows which studio would put this out...

Max: Bobby Clark!! Leo: Eddie Cantor!!! Of course, to accomodate Paul McCullough there would have to be three Producers : Bialystock, Bloom and Blodgett.

Paramount's version; Max: W.C. Fields. Leo: Jack Haley. And it would have to be directed by Eddie Cline to become a cherished loopy classic.

Warner Bros.' version; Max : Ned Sparks (God help us!!!) ; Leo: Joe E. Brown, borrowing Bert Lahr's mannerisms (as usual).

Another, later RKO version; Max: Leon Errol. Leo: Fred Astaire. And (it goes without saying) Ginger Rogers as Ulla - recycling her Lyda Roberti accent from Roberta. Oh, and while we're still at RKO, how about the supporting cast? My personal choices: Edward Everett Horton as Roger DeBris; and Eric Blore as Carmen Ghia. (Paramount would use Franklin Pangborn).

And finally, the MGM version ("More Stars Than There Are In Heaven") [pause for an intake of breath]; Max: Ted Healy. Leo: Buster Keaton.

(Look, I know Speak Easily is very enjoyable, readers, but I just didn't have the heart to cast Jimmy Durante as Max; I just couldn't do it.)

Supporting cast: Greta Garbo as Ulla. El Brendel as her brother. Whaaattt?

Okay, that's enough. The van's arrived. The men in white coats are here. Take me awaaayyy....

Readers: over to you. Improve on this!

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Geoff Collins Sees The Producers - At the Right Price!

The following article is for the benefit of our readers who may have become jaded and cynical by the fact that all our material so far has dealt with the ancient, dusty comedy of people who have long since departed this mortal coil. Not true!

However, before we start, you need to know that this article has been edited for language. We can't have our lovely Third Banana site littered with the kind of obscenities you'd find in the films of [momentary pause for a brief shudder] Adam Sandler.

You also need to know, for the purposes of the following narrative, that Cineworld in Milton Keynes, a cinema complex in sleepy Middle England, has half-price tickets on Tuesdays. Thrilling, isn't it? But maybe not as thrilling as the prospect of seeing Nathan Lane [my God! - he's writing about someone who's still alive!] in the stage version of The Producers, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Ivy and I had booked tickets for the Christmas Eve 2004 matinee, the last show before Christmas - and the only show we could get any tickets for - and we eagerly awaited this rare chance to see the great comedian in action. Sadly, it was not to be. When we arrived at the theatre, we saw the dreaded, all-too-familiar A4 sheet sellotaped to the door :

Due to the indisposition of Nathan Lane, at this performance the role of Max Bialystock will be played by Cory English.

My initial reaction was, I'm afraid to say, not charitable. "Oh dear" I said, "it seems that Mr. Lane has returned to New York for Christmas!" [Don't forget, this has been edited for language] Other theatregoers in the lobby were also grumbling along similar, if less profane, lines, and it was only when a charming young lady who sold us the programme pointed out that Mr. Lane had slipped a couple of discs in his back that we became more favourably inclined towards Mr. English. Who would want to be in his shoes at such a time? Two thousand people had turned up, expecting to see Nathan Lane. It made us realise that an understudy, especially if he's understudying a world-class comedian, has the hardest job in the world. If anything, he has to be better, funnier than the absent star. With this in mind, we silently wished him all the best.

It seemed that the entire audience felt this way. And Mr. English didn't disappoint us. He made his entrance, he got his first laugh, everyone relaxed, and he gave a fantastic, hilarious, unforgettable performance. God bless you, Cory English. Understudies are the unsung heroes of show business. Mr. English, with his greasy hair plastered down over a barely-concealed "bald spot" was Max Bialystock: seedy, greedy, conniving - and very, very funny.

The only problem is: we still haven't seen Nathan Lane.

"Tell you what" said Ivy, "when the film comes out, we'll go and see it in Milton Keynes, on a Tuesday, for HALF PRICE!!!"

Again, please bear in mind that this has been edited for language. Sorry, Ivy.

So I'm pleased to report that after more than a year, I can finally say: Mission Accomplished! Last Tuesday, Ivy and I went to Cineworld in Milton Keynes and saw the movie version - for half price; and I'm also delighted to report that it's a treat, full of that overstated Third Banana New York Broadway comedy we all know and love. The dull jockstrap who writes the film reviews in our local paper didn't think much of it, however, although he did concede "the songs are good". Idiot. He probably got bored due to the lack of explosions. Anyway, we loved it... but hold on a minute... something was missing...

What happened to Nathan Lane's opening number?

After the scene establishing that Max's latest show is a flop, the movie cuts abruptly to the bit where Leo bursts in on Max and the sexually-active nonagenarian Hold-Me-Touch-Me in the office. Max's introductory song "The King of Broadway" in which he establishes his character as a once-great impresario who's gone hopelessly to seed, just isn't there. What happened? Was the movie too long? Or is this scene languishing in a dustbin behind Cineworld because the projectionist wanted a longer tea break? We know one man who can answer this question; and it's a good job too, 'cos you'll get nothing from The Producers website. I'm on pay-as-you-go here and the bastard thing takes about two years to load up. I gave up in the end. Feck 'em.

Ivy and I stayed in our seats at Cineworld right to the bitter end because I'd heard there was a post-credit sequence right at the end of the movie that was worth waiting for; and there is. Only four of us saw it that afternoon; all the other unadventurous zombies had long since gone, to continue their life-in-death shopping in the mock-America mall that we know (but don't love) as Milton Keynes. But while we waited, amongst the hundreds of names unravelling before us, one name stood out:

Nick Santa Maria.

Our third Third Banana writer is in the movie, playing one of the accountants in Matthew Broderick's "I Wanna Be a Producer" number. Over to you, Nick. Why was "The King of Broadway" cut out ? It's a classic number; it introduces Nathan Lane's character. Was it filmed? Does it exist? Will it be on the DVD?

Answers, please. Why was it cut out? [This last sentence has been edited for language]

A final thought: if you understand and appreciate The Producers, and consider it, as I do, the best musical comedy you've ever clapped eyes on, then, my friend, this is the website for you. Put us on your Favorites list; we're on your side.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006


This is a little late, but Bill Sherman drew my attention to a January 1st post by Mark Evanier about Zenobia (1939), Babe Hardy's only solo starring feature. At the time, Laurel had been fired from the Roach studio for "breach of contract" and the future of the Laurel and Hardy partnership was up in the air. With Hardy still under contract, Roach put him to work as a star comedian in what amounted to a "tryout". Also cast in Zenobia was studio gagwriter and former headliner Harry Langdon, making his first appearance in a Roach production since his failed 1929-30 series. At the time of Zenobia's release, the studio played up the possibility of a Langdon and Hardy partnership in press releases. There's no evidence of any such teaming in the film itself, and as Evanier points out, such stories were likely to have been dreamed up to pressure Laurel into accepting the terms of a new contract. Similarly, during a previous dispute between Laurel and Roach, the studio announced a new series of "Hardy Family" shorts starring Babe, Patsy Kelly, and Spanky McFarland. Frankly, that sounds much more interesting and plausible than "Langdon and Hardy", although L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt insists that Roach would have been forced to "eviscerate" both his Our Gang and Todd and Kelly series in order to produce "The Hardy Family", an unlikely move.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Pat and Patachon on DVD

After five years of digging up scraps of loose info and tracking down what little footage I could afford, I finally hit the Pat and Patachon motherlode; a seven DVD set from Kinowelt available from The most complete P&P feature I had seen prior to this set was the turgid and sloppy Blinde Passagiere (1936), one of the six talking features the Danish comedy team made in Germany. As unpromising as Blinde Passagiere was, I found it unlikely to be representative of a team whose reputation rested on their silent output. So, in order to satisfy my ravenous curiosity, I plunked down my cash.


The Kinowelt set features an early 80s German TV series of repackaged P&P films. Along with added sound effects and some rather pleasant Jacques Tati-esqe incidental music, a narrator who sounds a lot like Hans Albers provides color commentary and adds the occasional voice. The handling of the films is generally respectful and although a few episodes are features that have been cut down to fit the TV format, the editing covers for it. Oddly, even talking P&P films like Alf's Carpet (1929, their only English-language film, shot in the UK) have had their soundtracks replaced as though they were silents. I'd rather they hadn't, but pickers can't be choosers.

As for Pat and Patachon themselves, Blinde Passagiere is hardly representative. They were a silent team to their core, and Schenstrom and Madsen are excellent pantomime comics. Madsen gives every indication of having been a pantomime clown before entering films and I can imagine that neither he nor his partner were comfortable with sound (as their dialogue in Blinde Passagiere would indicate). As their very first shorts are included as well as some of their last features, this set gives a viewer the opportunity to see their characterizations develop. Although P&P debut as funny if unsympathetic tramps without much in the way of an inter-character dynamic, they quickly develop into the spiritual forefathers of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Schenstrom/Pat/the tall one is the "parent" figure who literally leads Madsen/Patachon around by the hand. Madsen's deadpan and slightly confused expression denotes a kind of uncaring stupidity in the earliest films but eventually evolves into the wide-eyed gaze of a (too) trusting child. When happy or amused, he'll suddenly burst into a wild, carefree dance, usually cut short by an irritated Pat. Schenstrom's performance as the devoted, yet dim and frequently selfish, friend stays consistent as does his appearance, hidden as it is behind a putty nose and brush mustache. They're subject to the standard needs of silent comics; food, alcohol, money, and women and will often fight over them, especially women. And there are a dozens and dozens of Danish girls in skimpy outfits playing precisely the same role here as the Sennett Bathing Beauties back in the US.

As for the films, some of them, especially the talkies, are plot-heavy and tedious and P&P appear as "support" for the inevitable Young Couple In Love. But there are a few gems in here. One features Patachon as a sharpshooting savant who uses the team's tiny apartment for target practice, sending bullets whizzing throughout the building. Another features a dream sequence in which P&P have all the flesh rendered from their bodies in a giant pot by scientists, leaving their heads intact atop skeletons (foreshadowing the ending of Laurel and Hardy's The Bullfighters). And even when the gags falls flat, some of their films must be among the most beautiful comedies ever made. The scenery, and the cinematography, is frequently breathtaking. Very few if any of their films appear to have been shot on sets, their regular director Lau Lauritzen opting to shoot the team in natural settings.

While Pat and Patachon are capable of some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments, such as their attempts to sell ice cream to skiers in the Swiss Alps or Patachon using his sharpshooting skills to spit out the fuse on an anarchist's bomb, I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that the team’s films never made headway in the US. The pacing of even their best pictures is, to my American tastes, a little sluggish and it was even considered an issue when a few of their silents were released in England (in re: to Ole Opfinder's Offer aka The Mill (1924), one contemporary English critic wrote "Its story is terribly slow and long-winded and suggests that Denmark's ideas of film comedy production are five years behind the times."). And although Pat and Patachon are probably not in line to be the next unsung silent comics about to receive their due, they and their films are testimonies to exactly how diverse the world of classic comedy is and how much remains to be discovered.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Geoff Collins Examines the Houston Sisters! (but not too closely)

Those of us who have endured Carry On At Your Convenience [pauses for a quick shudder] may recall that the character played by Kenneth Cope was mightily dominated by an absolute gorgon of a mother: “Agatha Spanner", a face-biting, foul-mouthed Scottish harridan. This horrific old trout was portrayed by variety legend Renee Houston. It would be fair to say that this startling performance was not the high point of her distinguished career; but it gives us a point of reference on which to begin.

Renee was in many movies - the genuine high point was probably A Town Like Alice - and she was often on radio in the sixties and seventies as an acerbic, straight-talking panelist on Petticoat Line; but let's consider an earlier part of Renee's long career. She wasn't always an old boot. In fact she was absolutely gorgeous - and very funny. So let's take a look at the Houston Sisters.

The Houston Sisters: Renee and Billie. They sang, they danced, they did crosstalk - but they were a bit unconventional, to say the least; for Billie was dressed as a boy, with short blond Brylcreemed hair, and spoke in a gruff, rather forced "deep voice" - oddly enough, sounding much the same as Renee did in later life. A Town Like Alice may be Renee's "career best" but there's another high point to be assessed, from a lot earlier: Radio Parade.

We all know that there are many "lost films"; but there are probably a similar number of movies which are never shown anywhere because they are partly lost. With a reel missing, the narrative won't make any sense, a classic example of this being the 1931 version of The Ghost Train, which partially self-destructed while in storage. How tragic is that? In the case of Radio Parade, which is missing the first reel and apparently some of reel two, it doesn't matter that much in plot terms as it's just a succession of variety acts; but of course we might have lost some classic pieces of British Music Hall. Ah well. The good news is: what's left of this sad old movie is freely available for viewing on - wait for it, we all knew he'd mention this eventually -

What it's doing in the Pathe archive is anyone's guess; it wasn't even made by Pathe. But nonetheless it's a valuable record of some radio and variety stars of the time (filmed, I'd say from the musical evidence, between Nov. '32 and April '33). The acts range from downright exquisite (Elsie Carlisle) to excellent (Roy Fox and his Band, Florence Desmond) to very good (Elsie and Doris Waters as "Gert and Daisy") to "what's the point?" (Stainless Stephen, Leonard Henry) and the best way to access the whole thing is by typing in "Claude Hulbert” as he and Gus McNaughton appear throughout the movie as a sort of linking device, spying on all the acts from increasingly ludicrous hiding places in order to steal their material. Stodgy dullard Christopher Stone also turns up from time to time, and it's incredible to imagine now that this boring old fart was the BBC's first DJ. How times have changed [did someone say "Thank Goodness?"]

But as a contrast to Stone, the world's only living insomnia cure, halfway through reel 5, we come across the Houston Sisters. Boy, do I need to rephrase that. We encounter the Houston Sisters.


Renee wears a very short skirt and looks ravishing. Billie is in full male drag but it's not all that masculine, a sort of golfing outfit with pullover, cap and suspiciously satin-like plus-fours, and he/she provides the ukulele accompaniment as they sing "Just an Echo in the Valley" ("Whoo-Hooo!") before going into the patter routine. Rarely has a double-act provided such a brain-scorching brew, a toxic but irresistible cocktail with suggestions of incest, lesbianism, transvestitism and even ventriloquism. Their act includes all the usual [this is "usual"???] boyfriend/girlfriend "flirting", an old gag in which the unconvincingly "male" Billie is "a decided blonde" (Renee: "I know - I was there when you decided!") and finally another song in which Renee sits on Billie's knee and becomes a ventriloquist's dummy. Stiff-backed, swivel-necked, one eye half-closed and the other glassy, Renee does a devastating, hilarious and entirely creepy parody of all the crappy vent acts we've had to endure over the years. Did Arthur Prince get to see this? Just think of it: Peter Brough could have saved himself all the trouble of trying to hide his obvious lip movements by replacing Archie Andrews with a real.... oh, no.. We'd better not go down that road.

Renee and Billie's appearance in the Pathe newsreel short Roadhouse Nights is even more astonishing. The sisters once again play their regular roles and flirt with each other as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" but both are wearing the wide-trousered bathing costumes popular in the early thirties; so Billie is a girl, playing "a boy", but dressed as "a girl". Work that one out! Renee's costume is a bit loose; at one point she adjusts it with a very sexy wiggle, and describes Billie's hoped-for girlfriend (i.e. herself) as having "dark hair - and a bathing costume that the firm lent to her!"

This item was "filmed on the Kingston By-Pass" (not literally, but you can occasionally hear the traffic outside the building) and is in fact a "live" cabaret performance. Amongst the other acts on display, we get to see Collinson and Dean at their very best, in a section of their "Ambition" routine, much funnier than the audience-free zone of their 78rpm record.

But for me it's Renee and Billie who hold the attention. Their act is sharp and professional, yet with an engaging looseness, as at the point where they "forget" to cue the band in for their song (Billie: "How do you feel being in love? This is really the definite cue for the band - oh yeah, we forgot that!") And there's a priceless moment where Renee acknowledges the newsreel camera. Pausing for a moment to assume a coy pose, she says "I hope that Pathe guy gets me while I'm lookin' cute!" She gets an immediate, huge laugh. Seventy-three years ago - but it could have been made yesterday.

Shortly after this Billie had to leave the act due to illness. She died in 1955. Renee appears in several other Pathe items, "at home" with her husband Pat Aherne on their boat (and lookin' cute again in nautical gear; highly recommended!) and later, with another husband, Donald Stewart, with whom she toured for many years ("Variety's Sweethearts")

A solo career followed, including a few good film roles, lots of stage work and eventually Petticoat Line on the radio. By the time Renee had Carried On At Your Convenience she'd matured - take that any way you like - to the point where she could portray a ferocious ratbag with total conviction. But thanks to the Pathe website - yes, I know, I mentioned it again - we can admire the slim, beautiful Renee of younger days. Yes, Renee, that Pathe guy did get you while you were lookin' cute. And for that, we should all be grateful.

And Billie didn't look too bad either....

Renee Houston: 1902-1980

Billie Houston: 1906-1955

Goodnight, girls; and thanks.

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