Sunday, February 26, 2006

Leslie Henson: England's Forgotten Buffoon

by Geoff Collins

Leslie Henson is haunting me. There's no doubt about it. He just keeps turning up, everywhere. As a bit of a collector - now there's an understatement - I occasionally find it necessary to browse through piles of old books and magazines at various fairs, or in junk shops or charity shops, and every single time, without fail, sooner or later I'm confronted by that face, that face, that wonderful face.

In It's a Boy, a hung-over Edward Everett Horton, playing the Romantic Lead [!!!], pulls back the sheets to investigate the mysterious lump in the bed, and finds it to be none other than Leslie Henson, flat on his back, fast asleep. Horton is puzzled, and asks "Is it a fish?"

That Queen of the Theatre Critics James Agate, a bit of an old trout himself, had quite an expressive range of expressions in order to describe Leslie's expressive range of expressions:
"Leslie Henson will, in moments of ecstasy, look at you out of eyes bulging like those of a moth which has eaten too much tapestry."
Perfect; and yet here's another one:
"Only, of course, the next minute he will be looking like a goldfish the maid has forgotten to put back into its bowl, or a tortoise imprudently come out ofits shell."
Shall we let the Yorkshire genius J. B. Priestly 'ave a go at describing our Leslie? Aye, 'appen we will:
"How to describe that face? I might say that it was a combination of the Frog footman and the Fish footman in Alice in Wonderland."
Leslie's unique facial equipment is probably the reason why, without any effort at all, I've managed to acquire a large collection of Hensonioniana... er, Hensonia... Hens... oh blow it. Henson Ephemera. Copies of The Play Pictorial, theatre programmes, magazine articles....amidst a sea of ordinary faces, he's suddenly there. He leaps off the page. In his all-too-rare movies, he leaps off the screen. And his recordings - yes, they turn up as well - are just as memorable because he also had That Voice. That Voice was perfect for That Face. It was upper-class, flat and very croaky; in fact, Henson's Throat was at one time the expression used in medical circles for a type of persistent sore throat. Leslie would have been the definitive Mr. Toad. Indeed, in many of his best roles he's an aristocrat, lawyer or man-about-town who's been thrust unwillingly into a predicament of spiraling embarrassment, from which he resourcefully tries to extricate himself - unsuccessfully - by a series of elaborate lies or cunning plans. His eyes bulge and roll around, and his voice becomes even croakier as he heaps one absurdity upon the next, sinking deeper and deeper into the morass.

In It's a Boy, for example, he finds himself in drag, pretending to be a lady author, and having to explain the plot of his/her latest book – which he's never even looked at, never mind written- to the guests at his best friend's wedding. Is all that clear? Don't ask! Leslie jabbers away and it's soon apparent that he's describing some sort of cross between Goldilocks and Cinderella. Would-be bridegroom Edward Everett Horton, who's in on the subterfuge, looks on in shocked amazement. Fortunately for Leslie, none of his listeners have read the book either.
Leslie: Well, in that case, I'll give you a rough idea of it. Let's see now...well, it's quite a simple little story, you know. It's all about a little maid who is the drudge in the Baron's castle. And one day she's picking up sticks in the forest, and she sees coming towards her in the distance three bears...

Horton: [coughs] Uh-huh!

Leslie:, not three bears....her...her Godmother, who looks like three bears to her. So she says, "Good God mother, what big eyes you've got." And the wolf says...

Horton: [shocked] No!

Leslie: ...and the wolf says "No!" You see, he's quite a nice type of wolf. Not the type of wolf that would say yes...
And so on. Is it possible for me to get through an article without mentioning Hardly. For on this wonderful website we have several examples of Leslie at his very best, most effectively in a 1937 "Camera Interview" in which he's being sketched by the artist Frank Slater, and he displays a couple of his best Faces. And who needs Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots, or Jack Haley in Follow Through, when we have film clips of Leslie in the London stage versions?

Although Leslie was primarily a West End theatre comedian, his movie career wasn't just restricted to brief newsreel clips of other comedians' film adaptations. He starred in several screen farces himself in the early thirties, although some have probably vanished altogether by now. It's a Boy (1933), a fast and funny version of his 1930 stage comedy, was available on VHS in the UK several years ago, and happily, as is the case with Joe Cook in Rain or Shine, it preserves the full range of Leslie's talents. Oh Daddy, made a year or so later, has recently been recovered and shown on British television. In this, Leslie plays Lord Pye, who is tempted out of the clutches of the League of Purity by glamorous night-club singer Frances Day. It's a delightful period piece with several beautifully-photographed musical numbers.

Frances is blonde, sexy, heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and she purrs her lines like Fenella Fielding. Leslie, for once a bit shy in the presence of this goddess, growls his lines like, well, like Leslie Henson:
Frances: So you're Lord Pye. This is a surprise!

Leslie: Am I? I it?

Frances: [turns on the charm] Yes, I expected someone... much older.

Leslie: Older?

Frances: And less, er...military-looking.

Leslie: Military-looking? Huh... yerse. [He preens a bit and twirls the ends of an imaginary waxed moustache] Well. Tell me... [coyly] how old do you think I am?

Frances: 30!

Leslie: No.

Frances: No? Er... 35?

Leslie: No.

Frances: Oh you can't be 40!

Leslie: Certainly not. 38 last Februrur... last Februrur... last F.... last June!
In one of the musical numbers, Leslie wears Bobby Clark's satyr costume from Cochran's 1931 Revue. [This is an educated guess; how many satyr costumes are there?] Was he always borrowing things from legendary Broadway comedians?

Leslie was clearly legendary himself in the 1930s, and he was held in high esteem, one of the few comedians considered "important" enough to be listed in national biographies and contemporary encyclopaedias. Yet nobody's heard of him now. Why did this ebulliant, vibrant comedian slip away so suddenly?

Actually it wasn't that sudden. He entertained the troops in World War Two (and is represented doing so in The Demi-Paradise, raspingly introducing his interpretation of RacHHHHHHmaninoff's Prelude); and he had several post-war stage successes in Bob's Your Uncle, And So To Bed, and the Grossmith Brothers' classic Diary of a Nobody, for which he would have been ideally cast. Yet J. B. Priestly has noted, in Particular Pleasures, that something strange and alarming seemed to be happening inside Leslie. He just wasn't funny any more. Not at all. Other great comedians have been afflicted in this way: Charlie Chaplin (controversial!); and Bob Hope and John Cleese (not controversial at all) and it usually has something to do with becoming The Management. Having to deal with meetings and committees and figures and auditions destroys their sense of the ridiculous. They still walk around but they're dead on the inside. That this should happen to a joyously free-spirited droll like Leslie Henson is a major tragedy; and yet it did happen. He visited Brian Rix backstage during the London run of Dry Rot: Rix, in his fine book Life in the Farce Lane, records with some poignancy Leslie's distress that no West End manager would employ him. He didn't need the money, but he wanted to work; and yet they all sensed that something was missing.

After this he had a supporting role in his friend Stanley Holloway's film Home and Away (bits of this can be glimpsed in Pathe's Film Fanfare no. 22) and he died at the end of 1957. Only a couple of weeks before his death, he had appeared briefly in another Pathe newsreel, a colour item about the re-building of the Gaiety Theatre bar. Leslie and fellow legend Lupino "Nipper" Lane struggle to get through a door too narrow to accommodate both of them. It's an old gag and Leslie looks tired - and the narrator considers it necessary to identify him "for the benefit of any children present" - but, thank God, in his last movie appearance, he's funny.

Fortunately for posterity, the period of his decline coincided with his absence from the screen; so when we get a rare chance to see a Henson movie we can enjoy Leslie at his best, with that incredibly mobile face and that rich fruity voice. At the time of his death, his obituarists called him "old-fashioned", a pre-war comedian - as if this is some sort of failing. The Marx Brothers were pre-war comedians; it never did them any harm. And Leslie's son is Nicky Henson, so there are still Hensons around to make us laugh.

Leslie Henson, in my humble opinion, has true Third Banana status. He deserves a re-appraisal; and judging by the number of times he pops up in my collecting expeditions, it looks as if he's asking for one.So keep watching this site, readers, as we will occasionally unload choice bits of Hensoniana onto you; and enjoy Leslie's drolleries on They don't make comedians like this any more.

Leslie Henson : August 3 1891 - December 2 1957.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

"Never a help, always a hinderance!"

(click for full-sized image)

John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows sent over this bee-YOU-tiful two-page spread advertising Clark and McCullough's 1932-33 series for RKO-Radio Pictures. Despite the hyperbole of the ad copy, I wonder how much of a box office draw C&McC really were in 1934. Certainly, RKO didn't feel they had the drawing power needed for a feature, otherwise they would have starred in The Cuckoos, RKO's adaptation of their Broadway hit The Ramblers, rather than Wheeler and Woolsey. Unlike Bert and Bob who had wide appeal both in the cities and in the "sticks", Bobby and Paul were purely uptown comics and their RKO shorts, with their emphasis on big city life, trade heavily on that image. Acclaimed by New York critical circles and heralded as the worthy successors to the Four Marx Brothers on Broadway, Clark and McCullough even had a certain amount of snob appeal and would , as the ad suggests, "add glamor" to your bill.. given, of course, that your patrons knew or cared enough about highfalootin', citified Broadway comedians to feel that they were getting the equivalent of a $5.50 NY show.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Rabbit Returns?

I'm sure most of you reading this are already familiar with the bizarre news that Disney, at the behest of new president and CEO Bob Iger, has traded ABC sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC in return for, among other things, the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks' original 1920s cartoon star (and the epitome of the animated Third Banana). Thanks to the Disney Corporation's relentless self-mythologizing, everyone knows the story about Walt losing the rabbit, and most of his staff, to producer Charles Mintz (who, in turn, had the rug yanked from under him by Universal, Oswald's true owners). But what's usually glossed over is the fact that Oswald continued to thrive for years, first for Mintz's studio, a hotbed of talent that formed the foundation for most of the post-silent animation industry, and then for Walter Lantz. Also left undiscussed is the quality of the post-Disney Oswalds, which is actually quite good and, in the case of the Lantz cartoons, is actually an improvement, IMO, over the Disney series. This may be a matter of apples and oranges, but the Walter Lantz/Bill Nolan Oswalds are wild and very funny in ways that were anathema at the Disney Studio. The clean, tidy, and rural Mickey Mouse cartoons are precisely what Disney's Oswald series would have been had Mintz not taken the character. But left free to run wild at the distinctly big city Walter Lantz studio, Oswald became something else entirely. While remaining little more than an inkblot with a distinctive and readily recognizable shape, he became the rubbery cinematic Id of the Lantz animators; a vehicle for gags about booze, butts, and gratuitous violence, all timed to infectious hot jazz. These cartoons, along with the Fleischer output from this period, exemplify pre-Code synchronized animation. Interestingly enough, Lantz's attempts to emulate Disney's advances in character animation and reinvent Oswald as a genuine personality killed the property. The process began early as Lantz gradually dressed the nearly nude rabbit up, giving him shoes and then a shirt, culminating in the reestablishment of the formerly boozing and carousing adult rabbit as a clean-living adolescent (with the voice of Mickey Rooney.. sometimes). By the time Oswald had been completely redesigned as a semi-realistic white bunny, the cartoons had become dull and, following The Egg Cracker Suite in 1943, Oswald was retired from the screen (save a walk-on cameo in The Woody Woodpecker Polka in 1951). In comic books, Oswald, now a brown rabbit, survived well into the early 60s, once again an adult but, like all animated cartoon characters in Dell comics, a colorless suburban homeowner with lookalike nephews (yeah, kids in 1957 must have gotten a big kick out of seeing Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker mowing lawns).

So what's the score? What's next? What, exactly, has the Disney Corporation retrieved from Universal? Oswald isn't one character but three, and I assume that the Mouse Factory is primarily interested in Walt and Iwerks' original inkblot model, but where can they go with it? It's not enough just to own Oswald, you have to utilize him and make him relevant, especially if you hope to merchandise the hell out of him. So do they develop a personality for him or what? Does he get a series? A CGI feature? Do they give him the voice of Will Farrell? And what about the Mintz and Lantz Oswald cartoons? Does Disney own any part of these now that they have Oswald back in the fold? Answers! I want ANSWERS!!

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Dean Martin and the Wonderful Whimsical Whatzit!

John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows fame (go there now) has just posted this photo of the extremely cool and funny Dean Martin opening gifts on his forty-third birthday surrounded by his way fabulous guests Shirley MacLaine, Elvis, and Jerry's arch-nemesis, producer "Iron" Hal Wallis. As you can see, Dino is opening a very cool gift. Shirley certainly thinks it's cool!
On first glance, I believe it to be the multispacial neutronic accelerator, or MNA, that Dean has needed to complete the extremely groovy time machine he's building in his ultra-cool underground bachelor pad! His face beams with anticipation as he realizes that he'll soon be whizzing through time to meet and become well acquainted with fine, foxy ladies from the past and future! Happy Birthday, Dino!

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mr. Keaton Goes to Columbia

I have mixed feelings about this one. On March 7th, Sony is releasing a double-DVD set featuring all ten of Buster Keaton's Columbia shorts. Keaton was, bar none, the greatest talent ever to work for the Columbia comedy shorts department. Unfortunately, as had been proven at MGM, Buster never fared well when working within the rigid confines of the studio system and no shorts unit in Hollywood was as rigid as Columbia's, which is why it outlived every other such department in town. Take this with a grain of salt if you will as I haven't seen all of Buster's Columbia material and there may very well be a loose gem rattling around in there, but what I've seen smacks of "product" just like most post-1938 Columbia shorts; slick and streamlined and mostly flavorless (except when Elsie Ames appears, at which point they become downright obnoxious). Nevertheless, although they may not hold a candle to Buster's silent work, these films served their purpose. Buster was happy for the employment (if not about the quality of the shorts), Jules White was happy to have Buster's name on his department's roster, and undemanding audiences were happy to see Buster back on the screen, especially as his best work was a dim memory by 1939. Could anyone recall a time when Buster didn't play a bumbling idiot named Elmer?

But why Columbia? After Educational Pictures folded, there were still other studios producing quality comedy shorts. Frankly, just about any of Columbia's competitors could have produced a better series of Buster Keaton shorts. Warners had the wonderful Joe McDoakes series starring George O'Hanlon (later to perform the voice of George Jetson), and RKO's short subjects department was certainly producing excellent comedies and would continue to do so until they closed shop in 1953 or '54 (the Gil Lamb shorts must have been to blame). Come to think of it, Columbia's unit didn't outlive RKO's by that many years, and unlike Columbia, RKO never, as far as I know, recycled old footage to keep costs down. In short, Columbia wasn't, as it has so frequently been portrayed, the only game in town.. at least not yet. But shopping around was never Buster Keaton's forte', and this appears to be another instance in which he left his career on autopilot and let others make the decisions for him. As it happened, Buster's old "director" and gagman Clyde Bruckman was on White's payroll at Columbia, and it was he who suggested Buster to his boss. The job just fell into Buster's lap, apparently. Two factors aside from Bruckman may have made Columbia, rather than its competitors, seem a logical new home. First, the salary, the standard $2,500 a picture Columbia offered all of their regular short comedy stars, may have been better than other studios could offer, although in an interview with David Bruskin, White claimed that comedians like Keaton and Langdon were so down on their luck that "they'd take whatever salary I offered". This is, of course, a rather broad mischaracterization of the situation. Secondly, by 1939, Buster's reputation had, for whatever reason, become that of a pie-tossing, Keystone-style zany, and Columbia was the new Mecca of slapstick. Nonetheless, Keaton must have felt ensnared the moment he started work. In his autobiography, he claims to have tried to convince studio president Harry Cohn to spend more money and time on the shorts in order to make them marketable commodities in their own right rather than giveaways as a part of Columbia's package deal to theaters. In the end, Buster writes that he was happy to leave Columbia because he "couldn't stomach turning out even one more crummy two-reeler." You're not likely to see Sony use that quote in their publicity.

While a gig at RKO or Warners would probably have resulted in better films (and his much maligned shorts for Educational are superior), these aren't a total loss. Nothing Buster Keaton is in is a total loss. Buster is as agile as ever, his timing is flawless, and while the scripts are from hunger, there are still moments to be enjoyed... until Elsie Ames enters the frame, at least. And the graphics for the title sequences are downright beautiful and, for me, worth the price of the set alone.

As for my mixed feelings, while I find it encouraging that Sony/Columbia has suddenly realized that they're in possession of other shorts besides those starring the Three Stooges, I can only wish this set were devoted to one of the series that have good reputations. The comedy shorts unit was capable of excellent work in the 1930s, particularly under Hugh McCollum, and the Charley Chase comedies, at least the ones I've seen, must be counted among this unsung genius's best work. I can only hope that sales are brisk enough, despite the grumblings of picky knowitalls like myself, for Sony to consider raiding the vaults for more, and better, material (including, one hopes, their Screen Gems cartoons! I can dream, can't I?). The price is certainly right, $16.19 at Amazon.

Incidentally, Sony is calling this set the "65th Anniversary Collection". 65th anniversary of what? 1941 was the year Keaton left Columbia. Seems an odd thing to celebrate to me, although I think Buster might have disagreed.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

We Wuz Robbed

by Geoff Collins

Fire Chief Robb Wilton, a balding, dumpy little man in his mid-fifties, has finally managed to persuade his indolent assistant Arnold - by means of an archaic "speaking tube" - to go to the scene of a fire. "Oh aye, it's a pretty big fire....should be, by now". Muttering to himself about the inadequacy of his workforce, he approaches his desk which is completely submerged in pieces of paper.

"I never knew such a lot of messes in all me life... never 'ave. [During this brief monologue he listlessly shuffles this mountain of paper about; some of it falls onto the floor] I'll 'ave to get the telephone in 'ere, you know. There...must be a lot of...must be a lot of fires we never 'ear about through not being on the 'phone. [shuffles more paperwork about in an effete attempt to "tidy up"] Still, you can't get everything all at once.... [yes, he's still shuffling the paperwork about] This place was in a mess when I first took it over..."

This, then, is Robb Wilton, 1881-1957, another one of those fine Liverpool comedians (and I'm still not going to mention Ken Dodd). Robb was most characteristically seen in sketches in which he portrayed someone with some authority - policeman, magistrate, prison governor - who'd be in charge of something that he should have never been put in charge of, ever. You can imagine that with Robb running the fire station, not much of the town would be left standing.

Robb was never a star of feature films, unlike his contemporary the immortal Will Hay, who also played hopelessly inept authority figures. But fortunately for us, during the 1930s, Robb must have lived in a spare room at the Pathe studios; as a consequence many of his best routines are preserved on film and are freely available from They are 100% pure, undiluted Robb, unencumbered by inane subplots, romantic interludes or musical numbers, and they are some of the funniest film clips you'll ever see. Trust me.

Of course, all Robb's Pathe material was shot in a cold studio without an audience, a situation which caused many excellent comedians - Max Wall, Vic Oliver - to appear forced and self-conscious. Robb got around this problem because his sketch characterizations were always totally real, and the dialogue was conversational; but occasionally he'd have to perform a monologue. Robb's audience-free delivery of his classic monologue "Back Answers" (written for him by Charlie Coverdale) for the Pathe cameras in 1930 is very funny; the 1956 BBC radio recording is in a different league altogether. Robb plays the audience like a Stradivarius, and at times they are so helpless with mirth that they seem to be in need of medical attention. But let's not be too hard on Pathe. They put Robb's classic routines on film for all time; and that'll do.

Will Hay was always aware of his incompetence and spent much of his time devising crafty ways to blind others to his many flaws. Robb felt no need to do this; he felt that he was just the man for the job and carried on, completely unaware of the frustration and chaos he was causing. (British TV viewers may recall Harry Worth, at a later date, adopting exactly the same approach) Occasionally he could be flustered, or worried, at which point he'd rest his right elbow in his left hand, and let his right hand wander all over his face, rubbing his eyelid and giving his little finger a brief suck before considering what to do next.

"What to do next" wasn't usually much of an improvement. In his sketches Robb often encountered a woman on the verge of hysteria or madness; this part was beautifully played by his wife Florence Palmer. They filmed the Police Station sketch twice, for Pathe in 1934 and about a year later in the feature film Stars On Parade. Flo is distraught about the fact that she's poisoned her most recent husband, as well as all the previous ones, and she arrives at Robb's police station to give herself up. But that's not as straightforward as it seems. Robb's vaguely irritated; he hasn't tackled the paperwork for this sort of thing before, and, predictably, his desk is awash with sheets of paper which flutter around as he searches for the necessary form and prepares to take down the details. During the ensuing dialogue Robb rubs his hand across his face and treats the audience to a priceless collection of baleful "camera looks" as his face registers disgust and disbelief at each horrific revelation. Readers: download this clip. Do it now! You'll never see more perfect timing.

A couple of years later, and another Pathe sketch. Flo hasn't learned her lesson; she's on trial for shooting Sir Basil. Robb is the King's Counsel, and gradually some more facts emerge...

Robb: In the course of your evidence, you've also stated that you shot some more,, what were they again? Some butlers, and gardeners, I think...

Flo (defiantly): And the housekeeper.

Robb: Oh, and the housekeeper...

Flo: And the chauffeur!

Robb (can't believe it!): Oh, you shot the chauffeur as well?!! There you go, there's nothing down here about him at all...[shuffles through a mass of paperwork] We haven't got him at all. All right, we'll take your word for it.

(Robb sums up): Well, there's no need for me to tell the jury how hard it is to get household servants these days, and yet... here's a woman going about shooting four at a time!

Robb doesn't exactly inspire our confidence as a Prison Governor either:

"Of course two or three of them have escaped - but they always come back again. One fellow's escaped twice. If he does it again he's not coming back...we can always fill 'is place."

And how about Robb, in pith helmet and baggy shorts, in the jungle, reading from the Lion Hunters' Manual:

"Should you see several lions rushing towards you, don't get nervous - 'cos it won't make any difference." [to camera] Oh, when I first came out 'ere you couldn't move without pushing lions out of your way. It was sickening, it was..."

... and did I mention another sketch on Pathe (officially known as "His Journey's End") in which First World War soldier Robb is still in the trenches in 1932, unaware that the war has been over for fourteen years? Stan Laurel's brilliant idea for the opening sequence of Block-Heads has always been attributed to Harry Langdon's silent comedy Soldier Man; but did Stan see Robb's Pathe clip when he visited England in 1932? Or did he know of Robb's sketch anyway? As Eddie Cantor says: let's argue!

Robb's association with Pathe more or less ended with the outbreak of World War Two. By then he had become a legend. It's a bit ironic that out of a career lasting fifty years, he's mostly remembered today for a six-minute monologue in which he relates his experiences in the Home Guard. In England this is still much quoted, misquoted and certainly over-quoted, and it served as the inspiration for Dad's Army; it's a classic routine, no question about that, but it does give the impression that Robb never did anything else. He was sixty-two when he made the commercial recording of this, for Columbia on September 6, 1943, and he'd already been a star for thirty years. Still, we can't complain; it's made him immortal.

(This may be the point to mention that all Robb's commercial 78 recordings [there's not much; only ten sides], plus a few "live" broadcasts including a very tasty extended version of the Home Guard monologue, are available on a CD (Past CD 7854) from Enjoy!)

There's a lovely coda to Robb's career: in 1955 he did a guest appearance, just one scene, in Arthur Askey's movie The Love Match, in his old radio role as the magistrate Mister Muddlecombe. Arthur's supposed to be "up before the bench" but his love for Robb is apparent in every frame. It brings to mind Ted Ray's comment about Robb, that he "had warmth in greater measure than any living comedian."

Robb was a true "Third Banana" - because on this website we use the term to apply only to great funnymen who've been unjustly neglected or forgotten. "Third Banana" is the highest accolade we can bestow on a departed comedian - and Robb's right at the top of the list.

Watch his clips on Pathe. Enjoy his beautiful, beautiful timing, and you'll see exactly what we mean.

Robb Wilton: 1881-1957.
"The day war broke out, my missus looked at me and she said, er, "What good are yer?" I said "'Ow do yer mean, what good am I?".....

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wanna Buy a Duck?

It's 1934, Sunday, 6 PM. Millions of people across America are tuning into The Baker's Broadcast on the Blue Network. Its star: a 30 year old burlesque clown from Hungary named Jozef Pinter. He's better known as Joe Penner. Introduced by the announcer, Penner, a small moon-faced man with an infectious grin, trots across the stage to the microphone and says, with an hilarously sloppy lisp,

"Wanna buy a duck?"

The studio audience convulses in laughter as do millions of listeners. Who is this strange man and why does he want to sell us a duck?? It's so improbable! So absurd! Penner soaked up the laughter like a sponge. Only a few years before, he had been a struggling burlesque comic. Today, he was one of the nation's highest-rated radio comedians, earning $7000 a week, his catchphrases and silly laugh a national craze. Never before had the nation so totally embraced a performer in so short a time.

By 1935, Joe Penner was effectively washed up in radio comedy. By 1941, he was dead.

Penner was the real success story of American radio's coming-of-age. Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and Jack Pearl had all been successful on the stage for years before entering radio. Wynn and Cantor were practically American institutions before ever having stepped before a microphone. Even Jack Pearl had been a Zeigfeld headliner. In 1931, Joe Penner was little more than a moderately successful burlesque and vaudeville comic. The future looked dim for Joe; vaudeville was dying fast and burlesque had seen better days. And then a miracle happened; Penner switched out one word in one of his catchphrases. Instead of asking his straightman "Wanna buy a hippopotamamanous?" or "Wanna buy an ash barrel?" as per usual, he asked "Wanna buy a duck?". And the crowd went berserk! Maybe it was the funny way Penner said "duck", like a punch-drunk yokel. Maybe audiences in 1931 understood something we don't today about the innate humor of waterfowl. Whatever it was, in 1933, it propelled Joe Penner out of the small-time and onto the top-rated Rudy Vallee Hour where he became a literal overnight sensation. He was given his own series, The Baker's Broadcast, sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast, and by early 1934 it was the fourth most popular show on the air, pulling in better ratings than Amos N' Andy. Joe Penner was voted Radio's Outstanding Comedian by Radio Stars magazine. Toys and games were manufactured featuring his likeness.

But the decay began to set in early. For some reason, it never seemed to dawn on anyone that Penner was, well.. average. Not that he wasn't ever funny, mind you, but he wasn't especially good, either. He certainly wasn't on a par with Wynn and Cantor and Pearl and Amos N' Andy. Penner had slipped under the radar. In these early and insecure days of radio when a comic's unique vocal gimmick or catchphrase acted as a valuable identifying hook for audiences at home, Joe was a comic whose act consisted almost entirely of hooks! By 1934, it must have been apparent to everyone but the sponsor that Penner was running his existing catchphrases into the ground. The solution? More catchphrases! Better catchphrases!

"Don't be silly! Don't be silly!"

"Don't ever dooo-oo-oo-o that!"

"Oh, you nah-hah-sty man!"

"To be sure, to be sure!"

"Oh, wo-ho-ho is me!"

Penner grew increasingly neurotic. He knew he had to start introducing variety into his act but the sponsor didn't agree. The catchphrases, or "gag lines" as they were called, were a national craze. Why tinker with success? And even then there was another more fundamental problem; was he talented enough to transcend vaudeville style clowning? Penner must have had his doubts. He suddenly quit The Baker's Broadcast in June, 1935, and went AWOL from media for more than a full year, perhaps for fear of killing his career through overexposure but just as likely because of his fragile nerves. Recognizing Jack Benny's successful new blend of character comedy, gags, and situational humor as the new trend in radio comedy, Penner hired away Benny's head writer Harry Conn with the hope that Conn could help him re-establish his style. The new Joe Penner Show debuted on October 4th, 1936 on the CBS network and featured Penner in a sitcom format as the black sheep of the "Park Avenue Penners". But Penner had been away from the airwaves for too long and the novelty-hungry public had moved on. More ominously, the new format proved that Penner was purely one-dimensional and incapable of handling engaging character comedy. The ratings for his new show began slipping almost immediately. It folded in 1938.

By that time Penner was in Hollywood, appearing in lackluster B-comedies for RKO (already having been used and tossed aside by Paramount after a brief string of college musicals). While they had their moments, such films as I'm From the City (1938) were pure bottom-of-the-bill filler. By 1940, Joe Penner was in the unenviable position of being a celebrity has-been at the age of 35. Two new radio series had failed miserably. Any hopes that he might be able to revive his career were dashed when, on January 10th, 1941, he died of a heart attack in his sleep.

And now that you're all in the mood for high hilarity, I'm gonna break new ground here and make available the complete contents of the rare Joe Penner Joy Book! Don't never say I ain't never did nothin' fer ya! So popular was Joe in 1934 that Dell devoted this 35 page souvenir magazine to him. Inside, you'll learn as much about Joe Penner as his press agent wanted you to know. Read all about his childhood, his struggles in vaudeville, his phenomenal rise to superstardom, and find out exactly how he comes up with all those zany gag-lines! Plus: songs, gag, cartoons, and more, more, MORE! Click here to go to the file-sharing service where I've stored the 11.9 MB folder containing the contents. NOTE: right-click on "Your Download is Ready. Click Here to Download" and choose "save as". If you click on the link directly, the file will take more than a day to download! Follow the instructions and it'll take less than a couple of minutes with DSL. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Greenbriar Picture Shows

I had just read about this terrific new classic movie blog from when John McElwee wrote to me and suggested I "might be interested" in it. Am I that transparent? Apparently. As some corsage-and-spats-wearing dandy might have said in 1908, John's blog is a real crackerjack. Greenbriar Picture Shows is overflowing with fascinating commentary, rare stills and vintage press materials from John's collection. What really sets GPS apart from the herd is its range and thoroughness; any post by John is worth a dozen Robert Osborne TCM intros.. probably more. I'm not sure what the current exchange rate is.

Incidentally, John sent over this trade ad (click on the thumbnail) for Shemp Howard's Vitaphone shorts. YOW!! If this isn't enough to lure you over to John's blog, I don't know what to do. Shemp is one of the ultimate Third Bananas, a true unsung talent. Why, oh why, must he be forever remembered as "Curly's Replacement" after having spent so many years as a successful solo? Oh.. DUH! I forgot! Because the only public exposure Shemp has received within the last thirty years are his mediocre Three Stooges shorts. And I suppose people wouldn't be too keen on the Marx Brothers if all they ever saw were Go West and Love Happy! For much of the life of Ted Healy's vaudeville act, Shemp was Ted's most valued stooge, but Shemp struck out on his own following Soup to Nuts in 1930. It has been suggested that Shemp quit the act because he was terrified of Ted, but I find it more likely that, being far more proactive and independent than his siblings (who were poorly paid and worked into the ground by Columbia and never complained), Shemp recognized his own potential and was eager to earn the kind of money that Ted couldn't/wouldn't pay. For many years, he was the most popular and widely known of the Howard brothers, appearing in his own 1934-36 series of shorts for Vitaphone and as support in features or such comedians as W. C. Fields (The Bank Dick), Olsen and Johnson (Hellzapoppin'), and Abbott and Costello (Buck Privates, In the Navy, etc.). A freakish detour in Shemp's solo career is Knife Of the Party, a 1934 two-reeler for Van Beuren/RKO that features Shemp as the cigar-chewing boss of his own set of stooges! Billed as "Shemp Howard and his Stooges", Shemp bald-facedly apes the Healy act (complete with Ted's "I'm the boss here, ain't I?" catchphrase), and poorly at that. I have to wonder whether or not Ted ever saw Knife Of the Party and, as notoriously protective of his act as he was, what his reaction might have been. It raises many questions for me. How did "Shemp Howard and His Stooges" come about? Why did Shemp, who was rapidly developing his own unique style, decide to indulge in a cheap imitation of his former boss, the man he was supposedly terrified of? And who the heck are Shemp's stooges, anyway?? There are six of them (and not one with a personality)! They aren't individually billed. Does anyone out there know?

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