Sunday, May 28, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films No.3

by Geoff Collins

It's time for another trawl through the good, the bad, and the adequate in our third look at Funny Faces on the Films, or Priceless Pusses on the Pictures. Actually this is part 3a, as one of our subjects deserves an article to himself. Cantor's too important to share one-fifth of an article with some supporting comics, so I've let him take over. He'd have done that anyway!

Regular readers, not to mention constipated ones, will recall the four-page picture feature in Film Fun Annual 1939 that generated my lifelong interest in long-buried movie comedians. In Robert Woolsey's case this was literally true: when the book was published in late '38 he was already gone, and he can be seen in the cover artwork giving a wistful glance at "1939", as if somehow knowing he'd never get there.

By 1963, when I bought the book (let me also remind you I was seven) many of Woolsey's contemporaries were also amongst the choir invisible. For some reason I had the impression that Eddie Cantor was the little pop-eyed Second Banana on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Nobody told me otherwise, and it came as a shock to see "his" obituary in the paper a little while later. Having established that Cantor-lookalike Morey Amsterdam was alive and well, I was then subjected to further confusion. Thank Your Lucky Stars was shown on TV, and there are two Eddie Cantors in it - or, in that great trick shot near the end, about eight of 'em as he plays the entire orchestra.

Eddie's main character is his usual eager, good-natured innocent, in this case a hapless little guy who can't get a showbiz job because he looks too much like Cantor; and he also plays himself as Cantor the egotistical, pushy entertainer. This baffled me: which was the real Cantor? Gradually his other movies also began to appear on British TV and I experienced the joy of those flashy Goldwyn musicals, especially Roman Scandals (and clearly our Film Fun photo is a still from it). Every Third Banana deserves a movie as good as this.

It disappointed me to find that Eddie's autobiography Take My Life, in which he endeavours to come across as a philanthropic family man, is dishonest on a minor point: he writes of the personal danger involved in filming the bullfight sequence in The Kid From Spain. This is all bull; the whole thing's done with process work and back projection. Cantor and the bull are never in the same shot. They probably never even met. We can also be a tiny bit cynical about his justifiable praise for the lovely lady Third Banana Joan Davis, now that we know she provided him with a bit more than comedy relief. He writes of Jolson's many flaws as a person but much of this could also be applied to himself. Herbert Goldman's biography Banjo Eyes exposes Cantor as being just as contradictory a man as Chaplin: generous yet grasping; kind but mean-spirited and nasty; helpful to other performers yet jealous of the laughs they got; and a man of integrity who could be dishonest on his own terms.

To his credit, in Thank Your Lucky Stars he had the courage to put all this on display, knowing, naturally, that his public would think "Awww, Eddie's not like that!" But his writers knew their man and the script sparkles with put-downs and disgusted reactions to Cantor's many failings. It's the only big-studio wartime flagwaver that's enjoyable for the whole two hours.

Yet there's still another Cantor we haven't discussed. When the long-lost 1930 movie version of Whoopee was recovered in about 1980 the world could at last see Eddie in his pre-Goldwyn guise, before the Production Code pulled Hollywood's teeth out. Here we have Cantor the Broadway Star. He's like Woody Allen on speed, a neurotic New Yorker with more than a hint of sexual ambiguity - although one of the chorus girls in the "Makin' Whoopee" number gets a particularly warm smile from him. Despite being "Henry Williams", he floods the movie with Yiddish bits. It's hardly surprising that when the Production Code came in, Whoopee vanished for fifty years. Where could they show it?

New York-Jewish Eddie is also very much to the fore in the early talkie bits and pieces he made for Paramount at the Astoria studio, such as Insurance and the "Belt-in-the-Back" tailor sketch from Glorifying the American Girl. Twenty years afterwards, as we've seen from an earlier article, he was willing to sacrifice his friendship with Lew Hearn in order to claim ownership of this sketch legally. Not Very Good, Eddie. More like Knife-in-the-Back.

Did we mention yet another Eddie Cantor, the silent film comedian? Necessarily deprived of his song-and-dance routines, he's an astonishingly subtle and adept pantomimist. It's all in That Face, and when Paramount/Universal/Whoever make Kid Boots and Special Delivery available, we'll discuss them further. They both exist; why can't we see 'em?

Eddie Cantor is easily one of the most fascinating characters in Third Banana Land. He can be very annoying; his sentimentality can make you cringe. But when he sings and dances and claps his hands and skips about, he is magical. You don't believe me? Watch him race through "Okay Toots" in Kid Millions; and then watch it again. It really is that good. And have we spoken about Cantor on radio? Or on television? Or records?

This is one of the paradoxes of Funny Faces on the Films: what is Eddie Cantor doing on the same page as Mundin, Buchanan, Edwards and Karns? Characteristically he's used up all their space! Complaints should be addressed to Mundin, Buchanan, Edwards and Karns, Attorneys and Commissioners for Oaths. I rest my case. It's a bit heavy anyway.

A voice from somewhere in the back of my head (with ukulele accompaniment) suggests that I may have been a bit unfair to Mr. Edwards.

To be continued....

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Mystery of Bonnie Bonnell

Just recently, Geoff asked me for my opinion of Bonnie Bonnell: "Was she the least talented woman of all time, or is there some sly in-joke going on?"

If I had been asked this a few years ago, I probably would have leaned towards the former. Bonnie Bonnell, as any fool could plainly see ("Ah kin plainly see that!"), was Ted Healy's talentless showgirl inamorata, a secondary component of his stage act that had found herself out of her depths once the act had gone Hollywood. How else to explain her flailing dance number in Beer and Pretzels or her stilted non-performance in Nertsery Rhymes? But now, having given the matter some thought, I just don't know..

Following Soup To Nuts for Fox in 1930, Ted's stooge act had split and then reformed, with Curly Howard replacing both his older brother Shemp and fourth stooge "Pansy" Sanborn. There was yet another new addition to the act; Marion Wright "Bonny" Bonnell, Ted's first and only lady stooge. In 1932, a Hollywood nightclub appearance had led to a one-year contract with MGM, the most prestigious studio in town, and one with a tin ear when it came to comedy. Ted and co. were quickly put to work in shorts (40% new material, 60% unused MGM musical and specialty numbers) and, separately, all over the studio. Strike that.. Separately, except for Bonnie, who was relegated solely to the Healy shorts. At first glance, the reasons would appear obvious. Nertsery Rhymes presents Bonnie as MGM "eye candy", trying her damnedest to shimmy, shake, and belt out tunes as a bizarre "fairy godmother". She also plays straightwoman to Ted's stooges, delivering feed lines in a dull, lifeless monotone. Poor Bonnie is absolutely dreadful on all counts and even seems vaguely resentful. She fares little better in her next film, Beer and Pretzels, in which she receives a showy song and dance number that is so strange and inept that one has to wonder what contemporary audiences were supposed to make of it.

The third MGM Ted Healy short, Hello Pop!, is sadly missing, but the fourth, Plane Nuts, provides us with an extremely rare look at Healy's stage act.. or, at least, the final incarnation of it. Moe Howard introduces Ted, "Ladies and gentlemen. Ted Heel... Phew!", and receives the first of many, many slaps. Shortly after, as Ted sings, Bonnie dashes out onto the stage to cram a load of flowers into Ted's outstretched hand. Later, she rejoins Ted and the stooges during their standard patter routine ("What's your name?" "George Washington." "You picked out a good name. You the fella who chopped down the cherry tree?" "Naw.. I ain't worked in a year and a half!"). Bonnie's costume marks her as an eccentric, but her delivery still sounds somewhat restrained. Nevertheless, she plays her part as a genuine stooge, even going into a conspiratorial huddle with Moe, Larry, and Curly during the strange "Take a number from one to ten" routine.

The fifth, and final, Healy MGM short is something of a revelation. In The Big Idea, Ted stars as the owner and sole employee of The Big Idea Scenario Company, whose attempts at scenario writing are forever interrupted by a steady stream of intruders wandering through his office. The principal intruder is Bonnie, whose innate eccentricity has finally broken through. No longer the bland showgirl of the earlier shorts, she appears now as seemingly deranged cleaning woman, dumping basket after basket of trash into Ted's office. Ted is irate. "There's one thing I'd like to ask you. Why do you throw all of the garbage into my office every night?" Bonnie responds by laughing defiantly and poking Ted in the chest. "I knew.. I knew you were gonna ask me that question!" she says before wandering off to another corner of the office. Ted is not satisfied with her response. "Say! Why don't you answer me?" Suddenly, Bonnie seems more receptive. "Oh.. The reason is.. I like to clean the whole building into one room." she replies, illustrating her point with oddly elaborate hand gestures. "It makes it so much easier to clean up the rubbish!" Ted decides to pitch his story idea to Bonnie, who listens attentively with an intense, almost Harpo-esqe, look on her face. She even suggests a story idea of her own to Ted, growing increasingly, and inexplicably, angry as she outlines it:

"Why don't you write a story about a gentleman who makes love to a lady and they go for a walk in the woods and the lady finds out he's NO GENTLEMAN!!!"

At the end, Ted's girlfriend, Muriel Evans, catches Ted and Bonnie in an embrace and beans him over the head with a hammer. Unlike their previous shorts, The Big Idea presents Ted and Bonnie as a double act, with Howard, Fine, and Howard appearing as little more than a running gag (a brilliant one, though) with a few lines at the end. What had happened behind the scenes to bring this about? Was it perhaps a change of director? Jack Cummings had been the team's regular up to this point. The Big Idea was helmed by an uncredited William Beaudine. Whatever had happened, Bonnie has here become the precursor of Mabel Todd, Ted's loony love interest in Hollywood Hotel. It just seems more appropriate for his seedy, tough-talking screen character to hook up with deranged women ("I like you! You have such a nice swollen face!" says Mabel, complimenting Ted in HH) than, say, Muriel Evans.

I have a confession to make. I've skipped a film here. In 1933, between Plane Nuts and The Big Idea, MGM loaned Ted and co. to Universal where they appeared in Myrt and Marge, a backstage story based on a popular radio soap opera. I have yet to see this movie! Bonnie reportedly has a running gag as a gatecrasher. Can anyone here tell me how Bonnie plays her role? Is this the Bizarro Bonnie of The Big Idea or the Bland Bonnie of Beer and Pretzels? If the former.. well, I don't know what that means. If the latter.. I don't know what that means, either.

Bonnie's final screen appearance is in Paramount's Hollywood On Parade, episode B-9, one of those creaky (and sometimes creepy) newsreel-type shorts that show Hollywood stars at work and play.. or, in this instance, stumbling around a Paramount set that's supposed to look like a speakeasy. Silent comedian Ben Turpin is on hand in an awkward performance that reveals exactly why his career had ended with the coming of sound (before, actually). Major comedy acts of 1934 such as Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, and Wheeler and Woolsey make lackluster appearances as well, but the limelight belongs instead to Ted, Bonnie, and the stooges. "Please.. I beg your pardon.." says Bonnie, attracting Ted's attention by jabbing him in the shoulders. "Is your name Ted Heel?" Ted turns around and looks straight through her. "No, Ted Healy the name is, not "Heel"." "Listen.." she says. "Did you originate stogies?" "What?" "Are you the first person who ever had stogies?"

Oh.. stooges! Does Bonnie represent a deranged fan? Maybe one of those people who stopped Ted in public to ask him bizarre questions? It's likely that Ted was often asked whether or not he was the first comic to use stooges, and he probably would have replied in the affirmative. Whether he was or not, he certainly took the concept further than anyone else in the business. It's more than likely that Ted was the first comic to use a female stooge.

Ted has no time to bother with Bonnie's question. Instead, he turns to Larry Fine and says, out of nowhere, "I want you to be a nice boy. When you're a nice boy, your fairy godmother always watches over you." "Your what?" asks Larry. "Your fairy godmother always watches over you!" Bizarrely, Ted turns to Bonnie in anticipation of the punchline:

"I have an uncle I'm not sure of..."

Ted can't slap a woman, so Larry gets it in the kisser. "None of that now." Back to Bonnie. "But I wanna know.." she warbles like a brain-damaged Zasu Pitts. "You know, I know a system.. But I know how you make people laugh!" "You do, huh?" "Yes.. I certainly..." she trails off. "How?" demands Ted. Bonnie slaps Ted awkwardly and walks away. Ted is unfazed. "You're wrong, lady!" The stooges attempt to demonstrate the true Healy laugh-grabbing method by slapping each another, but to no avail. Healy has no alternative but to demonstrate himself. "This is the way, isn't it?" Ted unleashes his devastating gattling gun triple-slap, getting each of his stooges squarely in the face with a single sweep of his arm.

In this brief clip, as in The Big Idea, Bonnie Bonnell displays a peculiar sense of comedy that works well within the framework of Healy's highly peculiar act. You may not find her funny here (I do) but she's certainly anything but a cypher. Let's keep in mind, also, that she was no novice, having been appearing on Broadway since at least 1925. In 1926, Bonnie was in the ensemble of Clark and McCullough's biggest Broadway hit, The Ramblers, and was apparently discovered by that show's director, Phillip Goodman, for she next appeared in Goodman's Five O' Clock Girl as "Molly the Maid". There then followed an association with Ted Healy's good friend producer/director Billy Rose, first in a 1930-31 revue entitled Sweet and Low, and finally, later that year, in Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt with Ted and his replacement stooges, Garner, Wolf, and Hakins. According to Bill Cappello, Mousie Garner recalled Bonnie as "a very good dancer", but little else. While Ted and Bonnie definitely did strike up a relationship, her role in Ted's act was anything but payback for services rendered. Not even Ted Healy was impulsive enough to sabotage his own act with a non-talent. But here's the mystery: what was Bonnie to Ted's act? Even with her performance in Plane Nuts as a record, she remains obscure. Ted and his stooges display an easy chemistry built up over years of joint vaudeville experience, but Bonnie's relationship with the team, even her very personality, shifts dramatically from one film to the next. Sometimes she's a comic eccentric, sometimes a vamp, sometimes a stooge.. In some shorts she appears to be a budding comic talent; in others, terminally incompetent. Was this the result of studio interference? Was her original role in Healy's act as a legitimate stooge vetoed by MGM execs who, feeling that audiences wouldn't accept her as an eccentric, attempted to recast her as something more traditional? Or was her nebulous characterization in films merely a reflection of her nebulous function in the act; a trial and error process intended to figure out exactly what to do with Bonnie in movies until her contract ran out?

Ultimately, the only performer under that unifying one-year contract that MGM knew what to do with was Ted Healy. Ted had range as an actor that the others lacked; by the time of his death in 1937, he appeared poised to emerge as a major comedy star.. for Warner Brothers. MGM was simply not a studio for comedy, and it's just as well that they let Howard, Fine, and Howard slip through their fingers because the stooges would have been left to rot on the vine. Instead, Columbia beckoned.

Which leaves Bonnie Bonnell.

Bonnie had not made enough of an impression during her year at MGM to count for anything once the contract expired. Her once promising career with Healy had turned into a dead end. Despite the dissolution of the act and a lack of offers to continue in film, Bonnie remained in LA. Her bills were probably paid by Ted for a time, but this wouldn't have lasted long. In 1935, Ted, an affirmed firebug who reportedly carried a flask of kerosene in his garter, landed in jail for breaking into her apartment and using her stove to set fire to some chairs and some of her clothes. She refused to press charges, claiming it had all been a "misunderstanding". Who knows? The following year, Bonnie married a auto parts salesman named Jack Hayes. She spent the rest of her life in LA, dying in 1964 of liver failure at the age of 58.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Keep It Going Till we Get There

by Geoff Collins

The Marx Brothers are on a fire engine, racing through the city streets. As they pass a genuine fire, Groucho yells "Keep it going till we get back!"

It's a wonderful gag, and writer Joe Adamson has expressed quite valid regret that it never made it into the final version of the much-rewritten A Day At the Races. But thanks to the gently repetitive nature of classic comedy, wherein gags are often half-remembered and re-cycled, we've managed to locate three earlier variations. Maybe, dear readers, you can provide some more.

In the 1935 Vitaphone short His First Flame, fire chief Donald MacBride has forbidden any fires to take place because the fire station is being used for Shemp and Daphne's wedding. A weedy Skelton-like fireman (Fred Harper??) answers the phone. There's a fire. He informs the chief but is bawled out. Back on the phone to the distraught caller, he says ""Well, keep it burning a little while longer. Yeah, yeah....I tried to tell him but he wouldn't listen...." Naturally it's the chief's house that's on fire.

Several years earlier, another barely-competent fire chief, Robb Wilton, has his opening monologue interrupted by a frantic woman (Florence Palmer) whose house is burning down. After some attempts at helpful pleasantries ("Turned out nice again, hasn't it?") Robb endeavours to summon his lads via his archaic speaking-tube. He sends Flo back to the fire: "Don't wait now, lady, just slip along - ask 'em to keep it goin' a bit, will yer?"

Robb filmed his fire station sketch for Pathe in 1934, recorded it on a Sterno 78 on September 24, 1931 (see and was performing it for several years before this. But we have an earlierversion... much earlier.

It's a tricky business, writing about the great comedians of yesteryear. There's usually somebody still living who remembers your subject, and they can say "No - you're wrong! He wasn't like that at all!" In the case of Dan Leno, no such problem arises. Dan was born on December 20, 1860 and died on October 31, 1904. He's been dead over a hundred years. Yet in a curious way it seems as if he's still around, haunting us. He's certainly supposed to haunt the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (he was the Phantom of the Operetta). Stanley Lupino, who was into spiritualism, always maintained that he saw Dan's ghost. And Dan himself, in his photographs, has a haunting, haunted look, quite unsettling. You know that this man was no run-of-the-mill comic.

Dan Leno was considered to be the greatest music-hall comedian of the late nineteenth century, the Funniest Man on Earth. He was a quirky little London-Irish sprite, crumpled and sometimes mournful but always eager, alert and resilient. A tiny Milligan, forty years ahead of his time, his material often wandered off into completely unexpected areas which must have baffled the more prosaic members of his audience. He was praised by contemporary writers such as W. MacQueen Pope whose florid, anecdotal excess makes him the most appropriately named writer in the history of literature. But where's our hard evidence? Where's the living Dan?

The good news is: Dan made some films. The bad news is: none of them exist. Dan was around at the very beginning of the film industry, long before "preservation" was even considered. The early films were ephemeral and disposable; any survivals from this early date are purely accidental. A brief sequence was recently unearthed, showing Dan and his wife Lydia having fun at a garden fete. It's in the form of a portable Kinora "what the butler saw" paper flip book: a miraculous discovery - but not really representative.

So here's some more good news: Dan made nearly thirty recordings. But the bad news is: they're over a hundred years old, very scratchy and recorded at bewilderingly inconsistent speeds. Before 78 rpm was recognised as the most effective speed, it was every man for himself. Dan's record of "Going To the Races" (Gramophone and Typewriter GC2-2808) was made at about 65 rpm, as I discovered when I first played my battered old copy at 78 and got an incomprehensible high-pitched chirping. I had to hold my finger on the turntable to find out what it was all about.

More bad news: Dan wasn't happy with the primitive recording process, specifically the lack of an audience ("How can I be funny into a funnel?") so there's always a slight self-consciousness. Good news: when a record's a hundred years old, this hardly matters. We're lucky to have anything by Dan Leno; and as the record industry was in its infancy, there are few retakes and all the little fluffs are left in. For example : Dan usually starts and finishes with something resembling a brisk little song, as a framework for his character patter. Here's the first line of the published chorus of "The Beefeater":

"It's a splendid place to spend a happy day..."

On Dan's record "The Tower of London" (matrix 1129) this is what he sings :

"For it's a splendid time to see the happy hour..."

... so the next line doesn't rhyme. Annoyed at being caught off guard, right at the end of the record Dan says "No!"

Dan's very first record was "Who Does the House Belong To?", made at the Maiden Lane offices of Gramophone and Typewriter in November 1901. After a quick piano-accompanied chorus of the song, he launches into a monologue about some wonderful property he's just bought; it gradually becomes apparent that the place is a total wreck. Unfortunately the record runs out before he's finished, and clearly he's not pleased when the engineer points this out.

Dan: .... there's a little bit of garden at the bottom, you know, and I think a bit of garden looks lovely. It runs from the house...down to the river. The river's at the bottom of the garden... one month out of the year. The rest of the time, the garden's at the bottom of the river. Because the, er... flows. It's, er, really the gasworks, the overflow from the gasworks, that's what it is. But it looks pretty when the sun shines on it, with all the pretty colours. But it's , er, through the wife that I bought this other house, that I haven't paid for. She came home one day, and she said, er..."why pay rent?" "Well" I said, "darling, I don't know that we have been very guilty up to the present." She said, er..."Read that", and I read it. And it said "Money advanced...without security." I said "well, that'll suit me down to the ground." [pause] [to engineer] Is that it?

Engineer: [distant undecipherable mutterings]

Dan: Chorus ?

Engineer: [more muttering]

Dan: Suit me down to the ground.

Engineer: [mutter mutter]

Piano accompanist: [starts to play the chorus again, then stops. More muttering as the record runs out]

How rare is this? A fragment of an Edwardian argument, captured forever.

Still more good news: nineteen of Dan's recordings, oddly including the sequel to "Going to the Races" (02001) but not the original, are available on CD from The sound quality is excellent. Every word is audible and they all seem to have been transferred at about the correct speed, which is not always the case in reissues of ancient material; so we can experience the pleasure of Dan's ramblings as "The May Day Fireman", in which Dan's voluntary fire brigade appears to be run with just as much efficiency as Robb Wilton's. Watch out for a line we discussed earlier!

You know, when you start a thing like this, there's a lot of trouble occurs. You know, I told the four boys with me...we've been out of work for over a twelvemonth, because they pulled the house down where we used to stand at the corner...but I told them, I said, we can make a lot of money by being a small fire brigade. I said, I'll pop up and see the superintendent. So I went up, and I said to 'im, er...he was in his office, I said, idea was that we could be of some assistance. I said, erm...course, er, there was only one fire brigade in the village, that was his. And if a fire broke out at both ends of the village, it'd be impossible for him to squirt from one end to the other. So I...I told him, it was my idea, I said, we could be of some service, I said, a sort of little aide-de-camp brigade, I said, and if you had any little fires which you didn't want to attend to, I said, we can pop round and keep 'em going until you come up, you see. Course, he could see me idea, a very nice man he was, he never answered me. And I waited for about a half an hour outside. And, see, my idea was this: not so much the the salvage. I said, we can, I told the boys, I said, we could pop round, while the fire's on, and look...look for salvage, er, see? Or, I said, we could go before there's a fire and find a bit of salvage somewhere. Or I said, perhaps in the middle of the night we could go... into houses and look round and make ourselves acquainted so that if there's a fire we, er, don't come up as strangers. So Butterworth turned round and said "Why not be burglars?" Now, you know, Butterworth's got no brains....

The justification of petty dishonesty is reminiscent of Will Hay and his equipment-stealing crew in Where's That Fire? But Dan's record was made forty years earlier; and there are no obvious "music-hall jokes". He performs the whole thing conversationally, in character, in his crisp "London with a dash of Dublin" voice. It's still funny today. Well, I think so, anyway.

In 1899 there appeared "Dan Leno - His Booke", a semi-autobiographical fantasy apparently written by the man himself, and full of the same off-at-a-weird-tangent material as the records. When a truncated, inaccurate reprint appeared in 1968, a 99-year-old hack called Tom C. Elder came out of the woodwork and claimed authorship for himself. To me this is just as disappointing as the occasion when the radio actor Norman Shelley (memorably described by Kenneth Williams as "that bogus old crapmound") declared that he'd recorded all of Churchill's wartime speeches. In my opinion, Dan's book is pure Dan. It sounds like him, and I doubt if any mundane ghost writer (we're into "hauntings" again) could have come up with such a flow of free-form surrealism. The photographs were supplied by Dan, some of the cartoons are by Dan, and I'd dearly love to think that the whole thing is his. It's possible, of course, that it's a collaboration, or an "as told to". Did Elder just write it all down ? Or was he an unheralded scriptwriter? Let's argue! Incidentally, one of my most treasured books is a copy of the 1904 paperback edition, found in a car boot sale in Northampton in 1995. Miracles can still happen.

But here's the ultimate bad news. By 1904 Dan's health had collapsed. The strain of thirty-five years of continual hard work caught up with him. A major breakdown was followed by brief periods of partial recovery, but he was just worn out, and he died at the age of forty-three.

Dan died at Halloween; he haunts Drury Lane. Roy Hudd moved into Dan's house without knowing it had belonged to Dan; and Dan's leprechaun-like face, deep-eyed, sad and yet mischievious, still gazes at us out of the old photographs. A face like no other. We know, just to look at him, that he was the great comedian they all said he was.

Yet the films continue to elude us. That would be the final treat.

But wait...let's take a look at The Big Swallow, a short film made by James Williamson in about 1901. Just over a minute long, this was an incredibly original effort for its time. A small, dapper man is annoyed with a cameraman (offscreen) who is intent on taking his photograph. Thrashing about with his cane and insisting "I won't! I won't!" the man advances towards the screen into a terrifying close-up, and "swallows" the cameraman who is seen disappearing into the huge abyss of his cake-hole; then the film reverts slowly back to the medium-shot as the man is seen licking his lips contentedly. He gives us a big grin. Then the film ends.

But who's the star of this little movie? He wears a hat so we can't see his hairline. Initially he looks like Derek Jacobi; and that smile at the end is strikingly similar to a publicity picture of the comedian Charles Austin. But my immediate impression on first seeing the film was: "That's Dan Leno!"

All I ask, film historians amongst you, is one thing: don't prove me wrong.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

What made pistachio nuts?

"If any team deserves to be obscured in the annals of film history, it is they.." Thus spake Leonard "**1/2" Maltin in his 1970 book Movie Comedy Teams. We here at The Third Banana shun such talk, especially in regards to acts as fascinating and peculiar as that of Mitchell and Durant.

The Stage, 8/8/29. Mitchell and Durant and Burns and
on the same bill at the Palladium. Courtesy Geoff Collins.

Frank Mitchell (1905-1991) and Jack Durant (1905-1984) were mainstays of the waning years of vaudeville, a pair of loud and extremely violent slapstick comics whose act consisted of non-sequiturs and beating the crap out of one another. Creatively, of course. Squinty-eyed Frank Mitchell was the diminutive fall guy; tall and handsome Jack Durant was the guy who came up with excuses to toss him into the orchestra pit. Like Clark and McCullough before them, Frank and Jack developed their acrobatic act from childhood and gradually climbed the vaudeville ladder. Unlike Clark and McCullough, however, Mitchell and Durant's repertoire remained forever limited to knockabout antics. Their highly-polished act was spectacular enough to assure the team prime spots in glossy revues like the Scandals and Vanities but their one-dimensional nature would forever prevent them from becoming headliners in their own right.

Things might have been different had Mitchell and Durant made their film debut as a team in shorts. Their simple characters, acrobatic abilities, and brisk timing would have made them right at home at Educational or Columbia (Frank Mitchell did work briefly at Columbia for Jules White in the early 50s). Instead, the team debuted in a film equivalent of the stage revues they had been appearing in since the late 20s, Fox's Stand Up and Cheer! (1934). Beloved by some, I find Stand Up and Cheer! a bizarre yet somehow un-entertaining mess made palpable only by the presence of Mitchell and Durant. The President of the United States appoints theatrical producer Warner Baxter "Secretary of Amusement" to shake the nation out of its Depression-induced depression, the logic being that only general good cheer and novelty acts will put the country back on track. In lieu of "amusement" we get Stepin Fetchit, the terrifying Aunt Jemima (Tess Gardella in blackface), Nigel Bruce playing his usual idiot character, a penguin with the voice of Jimmy Durante (impersonated by lyricist Lew Brown?? What the-), and the wuvable Shirley Temple in her feature film debut. Yeah, that lot may be someone's idea of entertainment, but that person is not me. Mitchell and Durant appear mid-way through the picture as Senators Danforth and Small, sent to investigate the whole Department of Amusement matter as a possible waste of money. Their debut is actually a clever surprise; they begin by playing their parts as Senators straight.. and then suddenly and unexpectedly launch directly into their act, which must have caught contemporary audiences pleasantly off-guard. Their routine is a combination of acrobatic display and slapstick gags, cut through with peculiar pseudo-political speechmaking and strange one-liners ("What made pistachio nuts?" asks Mitchell).

Mitchell and Durant were memorable and entertaining enough for Fox to keep them under contract, but the studio apparently wasn't too sure what to do with them. The team found themselves quickly cast as comic relief in a series of four musicals, three starring Alice Faye and one, Spring Tonic (1935), starring Lew Ayres and Claire Trevor. I've heard good things about them in Spring Tonic and She Learned About Sailors (1934), but their gag sequences in 365 Nights In Hollywood are poorly-written and a waste of their talent. Their contract must have run out in 1935 for they were at Warner Bros. the following year turning in excellent and rather uncharacteristic performances in Al Jolson's last hurrah The Singing Kid. Mitchell and Durant appear as Babe and Dope, two of Jolie's radio gag writers, and in place of the usual acrobatics (aside from a brief backflip for Frank) are nicely written and beautifully performed running gags. "Hold out your hand!" demands Jack after Frank pops off a lousy pun or makes a silly suggestion, and then ignores the hand completely, instead dumping a vase over Frank's head or slapping his face. At the end, Frank has finally had enough. "Hold out your hand!" he growls at Jack, and then slugs him squarely in the face.

Mitchell and Durant's violent wise-guy comedy fit neatly into Warner's house style, so it's strange that they weren't kept under contract. Instead, The Singing Kid was their swansong as a team in movies. They split in 1938, so presumably they spent a few final years on the West Coast nightclub circuit. Frank Mitchell quickly bounced back into movies in 1939, staring with small uncredited roles, and then hitting his stride in 1941 as "Cannonball", a comic sidekick in Bill Elliott and Tex Ritter westerns at Republic (3rd Banana contributor Nick Santa Maria met Frank Mitchell briefly in the 1980s and claims that Mitchell was positive he was going to be remembered solely as Cannonball). Durant left Hollywood and returned to Broadway in the original production of Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey.

The Great One and Florence Rice are wearing about the same amount of
eyeliner in this odd, odd publicity photo. And, hell.. Borrah Minevitch
and his Harmonica Rascals, too?? I must see this movie!

With Abbott and Costello's smash hit Buck Privates in 1941, comedy teams were once more hot stuff in Hollywood. Jack Durant, who had resumed his film career in 1942 with the Ray Bolger service comedy Four Jacks and a Jill, played Abbott to a young Jackie Gleason's Costello in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp for Columbia that same year (anyone seen this?). Two years later, Frank Mitchell turned up in the Republic musical That's My Baby! with a new partner, Lyle Latell, who would become best known as Pat Patton in RKO's Dick Tracy features. Again, I haven't seen this and can't imagine who played the straightman. While Durant and Gleason were undoubtedly Columbia's artificial brainchild, Mitchell and Latell must have been a legitimate stage team because they returned the following year in George White's Scandals for a different studio, RKO. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

In 1943, Jack Durant appeared as Gogo Martel in Orson Welles' Journey Into Fear which, despite Durant's solid performance, clearly counted for little as he then vanished from the screen (apart from tiny cameos in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Bellboy (1960)). Frank Mitchell, however, kept plugging away in Hollywood with ever diminishing returns, eventually turning up in small roles on TV. There are two odd codas to Mitchell's career. In 1976, he directed Blood Voyage, his only feature. Again, I'd love to know how that came about. Three years prior, he joined Curly Joe DeRita and former Ted Healy stooge Mousie Garner as one third of "The New Stooges", a Three Stooges spin-off act that was booked at amusement parks for a couple of months. Were you lucky enough to have caught their act? If you were, please clue me and our readers in. The idea of Joe DeRita, Mousie Garner, and Frank Mitchell slapping each other around on-stage at some theme park is the stuff my dreams are made of.

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