Friday, June 30, 2006

Who's Faultin' Maltin?

by Geoff Collins

Marxian Madness: "a treat for their fans" - which is a much-used euphemism for "everyone else, including us, thinks it stinks". I just treated myself (because nobody else would) to the six-volume DVD set "The Marx Brothers Collection" which includes all of the Brothers' MGM movies plus A Night in Casablanca, along with numerous "special features" including - and this is what attracted me to the set - a whole bunch of MGM shorts from the same period. No Healys, alas, but there's an Our Gang, a couple of Pete "Annoying Wise Guy Narration" Smith Specialties, Robert Benchley in How To Sleep and A Night At the Movies, and a Warner Bros. Joe McDoakes. There's also James FitzPatrick droning on about the delights of San Francisco. His stodgy travelogues must have discouraged travel of any sort; they bored audiences for years but you need to sit through at least one of them to appreciate the Peter Sellers parody version Balham - Gateway to the South.

So what else could I do? I had to buy it; it was irresistible [and speaking of irresistible, who's the actress playing Benchley's wife in A Night At the Movies? She's the most alluring woman I've seen in my whole life.]

Only A Night At the Opera and A Day At the Races have commentaries, which isn't surprising: how could anyone be enthusiastic about At the Circus for an hour and a half? The funniest thing in the film is Groucho's toupee; and perversely it's also the saddest thing (apart from the lack of comedy and the fact that it's so obvious that nobody cared any more by this time). Why did they make him wear it? Why didn't he resist? How does it stay on his head when he hangs upside-down with Eve Arden? Why doesn't it fall off when he hangs upside-down with Eve Arden? (At least he'd get one laugh) why is he hanging upside-down with Eve Arden? So many questions....

Glenn Mitchell does the commentary for A Day At the Races and it's pleasant for me, as an Englishman, to listen to his restful tones as he expounds on many fascinating points from this flawed, overlong, troubled yet ultimately very funny movie. The commentary on A Night At the Opera is by Leonard "One of the Team's Best" Maltin, and again it's a model of entertaining and informative.... whoaaa! Just a minute there, boy! I really hate to do this, Lenny old son, but it's all in the cause of accuracy.

Maltin says that the Father of All Marxes, Sam "Frenchie" Marx, is an extra in the dockside scene of A Night At the Opera, apparently causing a continuity error by appearing on the ship and the dock in consecutive shots. I hate to say this, Len old chap, but there's no way Sam could appear in A Night At the Opera except in a box. He died on May 11, 1933 and thus missed this particular boat by more than two years.

The good news is: he's in Monkey Business. This time the Marxes, as stowaways, are trying to get off the boat. Sam appears at about 48:01 into the movie and he's clearly visible until 48:22 (based on the DVD timing which includes the new Universal logo at the beginning) as the brothers are taken off the ship on a big stretcher. Initially he's seen in a long shot, waving his handkerchief, then in a medium shot sitting on (apparently) a trunk with a couple of young women. He looks very dapper: white hat, dark jacket, white pants and two-tone shoes. He resembles an off-duty Harpo. A freeze-frame at about 48:20 will give you a lovely shot of all four Marx Brothers and their Dad. A priceless moment.

Leonard Maltin probably realizes his mistake by now and he's kicking himself. Why didn't he ask Glenn Mitchell? It's all in The Marx Brothers Encyclopaedia.

Amongst the special features on the Marx Collection DVD set is a terminally useless MGM two-reeler, Sunday Night At the Trocadero, which has the benefit of idiotic and pointlessly brief guest appearances by a number of movie people who happened to be nearby at the time. Its relevance to this collection is the sight of a non-mustached Groucho on a rare night out with his wife Ruth (although the whole thing looks as if it was shot in the studio); all of which brings us back to Monkey Business. As Groucho performs his Chevalier impression we can see, in the background, a young woman and two boys. I suggest that this is Ruth Marx and that one of the boys is their son Arthur, no doubt dreaming of that time in the far future when he would work with some of the greatest comedians in America and vilify them in sloppily-researched biographies. Has this been suggested before? Ruth certainly visited the set of Animal Crackers; she was photographed with Groucho at the Art Deco table used in the Groucho-Chico "left-handed moths ate the painting" routine. Come on, Third Banana readers: let's argue!

After all this, I hear you saying: "you've written all this stuff - who's the Third Banana?"

Well, it's Chico. He's always been regarded as the least important Marx (has everyone forgotten Zeppo?) yet his wily not-as-stupid-as-he-appears fake Italian frequently matches Groucho in timing and verbal dexterity; and he can out-scam anyone, especially Groucho. Often considered as just a straightman for his zanier siblings, of course he's much more than this, providing a bedrock of audience sympathy because we all recognize and love this cheeky con-artist. Despite his obvious phoniness he's nonetheless the most real, and the most lovable, and it's all done with the minimum of effort; an "Italian" Sid James. Hancock and Kenneth Williams were jealous of Sid; Groucho was jealous of Chico. It all has to do with charm, sex appeal and charisma. Chico must never be underestimated or overlooked, as he so often is. He was to the Marxes what Secombe was to the Goons.

Atsa some joke, eh, boss?

Well, that's about enough of that. Time for another look at A Night At the Movies. Benchley's brilliant but (surprise surprise) I won't be watching him. Goodnight everybody. Who is that lovely woman - and where's my time machine?

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Mexican Hayride "too sexy for GIs"

Bobby and Luba Malina in Mexican Hayride. Luba
was one of the only original castmembers to appear
in the 1948 Universal film adaptation. Click on the
thumbnails for full-sized images.

I found this on eBay a couple of weeks ago. It seems that some portions of Bobby Clark's 1944 Broadway hit Mexican Hayride were considered so salacious that the USO banned it as a camp show for GIs overseas. That's right.. Civilians could see Mexican Hayride whenever they felt like it, but not servicemen getting their asses shot at. Lord knows what the moral guardians at the USO got their knickers in a twist over. Universal certainly had no problem converting Herbert and Dorothy Fields' play into a toothless, Cole Porter-less, kid-friendly Abbott and Costello vehicle. Considering that the USO lost Bobby's collection of skits that very same year, I doubt he harbored many warm feelings for that particular institution.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Will Hay and his Comedy Divine - a Good-Looking Englishman's Perspective

by Geoff Collins

Well, after Aaron's article, what else could I call it?

Will Hay's entitlement to Third Banana status is fully justified, even in sleepy old England. Most of his movies are available on DVD here with the exception of some early ones and the elusive single-print Fox masterpiece Where's That Fire? - but they hardly ever appear on television, so poor old Will is just as obscure now in his native land as the rest of his contemporaries. It has to be said, though, that he's always been regarded over here as a bit special; it's rare indeed for a middle-aged comedian with such non-existent romantic appeal to have such a successful film career. As Aaron points out, this has much to do with the fact that Hay is always a real person. Apart from his closing remarks to the audience in The Ghost of St. Michael's, he's always within the film, earnestly but inefficiently trying to get on with whatever job he has to do in the mistaken belief that his superiors are blind to his ineptitude, while simultaneously using whatever nominal authority he has in order to generate a bit of extra cash for himself through some minor scam. Unlike Robb Wilton, another comedian who specialized in bumbling officialdom, Will knows deep down inside that he's been promoted far beyond his capabilities, but he feels that he's sharp enough to bluster his way out of trouble if his failings are exposed. His subordinates, insolent fat teenager Graham Moffatt ("Albert") and venerable rascal Moore Marriott ("Harbottle"), if anything even more dishonest than Hay himself, are quite happy to rob and blackmail him, and each other, if the opportunity arises. We've all known people like this.

This, then, is The Secret of Will Hay: he was a great actor as well as a great comedian. He doesn't seem to be acting at all, never appears to be trying to be amusing. It's the art that conceals art. Kenneth Williams knew this; he was flamboyant and artificial, which explains his deep dislike for Sid James who turned up and gave a flawless reading of the lines with the minimum of apparent effort, so he could get paid and get on the phone to the bookie. And let's not forget the obvious fact that Moffatt and Marriott were Hay's equal in film technique.

So, yes, Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are the British equivalent of the Marx Brothers; far more acceptable candidates than the usual contenders for the title, the Crazy Gang. The Gang, three mid-life double-acts of variable quality (Flanagan and Allen at one end of the scale; Naughton and Gold very definitely at the other) made their movies at the same studio (Gainsborough) and at the same time as Will Hay, and sometimes with the same director and writers (Marcel Varnel; Edgar, Orton, Guest) and they are excellent, funny films; but the Gang are pure Music Hall, overstated and stagey, whereas Hay and his stooges, despite the farcical situations, always inhabit the real world. Buggleskelly, Bishop's Wallop, Turnbotham Round; they seem like real English (or Irish) villages where Hay's petty bureaucracy and mismanagement would be accepted and cherished. In a perfect world Hay would have stayed at Gainsborough with his two cronies and made beautiful comedies all through the war (can you imagine the Turnbotham Round Home Guard, with Hay as Captain Dudfoot? Bliss!) But he didn't. He abandoned Moffatt and Marriott and turned out some efficient but far less outstanding comedies for Ealing in which, deprived of his sidekicks, he always seems a bit lonely. However! There was enough time left for one genuine classic: My Learned Friend. In this blackest of black comedies, made during the war but with no internal reference to the conflict, Hay is teamed once more with dithery drip Claude Hulbert, and he's a barrister on the run from a homicidal maniac. If this isn't enough, it features probably the nastiest baddie in all black-and-white movie-comedydom [what???]; razor-wielding London gangster "Safety" Wilson. Ugh! But Hay and Hulbert end up on top - on top of Big Ben, actually, in a climax oddly borrowed years later by the Robert Powell Thirty-Nine Steps.

Aaron mentioned the reluctance of the American film companies to give Stateside promotion to the product of their own British studios (another example being the Max Miller's Warner quickies which are unfathomable outside the southern half of England). Yet Where's That Fire? was made by 20th Century Fox, albeit with the full Gainsborough team, and only survives because a print turned up in the Fox vaults in Hollywood. How ironic that the finest film (I agree with you, Aaron) of this so-English comedian should be re-discovered after thirty-five years, six thousand miles from home in a land Will Hay should have conquered, but didn't. It's the culmination of all that Hay, Moffatt and Marriott did best: seamless script and direction, and such natural performances from the three stars that it makes you want to live there (unless your house catches fire); and comedy sequences (not "routines") of such pure joy that you find you're not laughing - you're absorbing it.

When the Marx Brothers tried to play Real Human Beings they produced things like Room Service. Don't misunderstand me; I think the Marxes are wonderful. Hay, Moore and Marriott, equally wonderful, brought about their anarchy from inside the real world, by undermining stuffy old 1930s England where order and efficiency mattered. Did it really? Or were we a suppressed nation, waiting for all that dull Ealing-type crap to get out of the way so we could get to the 1960s? Will Hay was the most popular English comedian of his time, and I believe this is because (a) the crafty old bugger was absolutely real, and (b) we'd all like to be as devious and shifty and sloppy as he is and (c) get away with it. If Ask a Policeman has a flaw, this is it: Hay and his pals don't get away with it. In Where's That Fire? they do.

There's not enough space in this one article to discuss Hay's early movies, before he encountered the Dynamic Duo, but they're mostly unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a "persona" for him. Three or four films in, someone realized it was there all the time: the seedy schoolteacher was adaptable to any kind of tatty authority. Needless to say, in these early efforts Hay's acting is always exemplary, even when he isn't funny at all (as in Radio Parade of 1935).

Nor is there space to examine the fact that the "pupils" in his schoolmaster act on the halls invariably comprised a lippy "Albert" and an ancient "Harbottle"; and that Moffatt and Marriott were the perfect cinematic replacement for long-forgotten stage stooges. These characters existed long before Gainsborough, and the proof is there on Hay's 78rpm records of 1929, and a brief 1928 newsreel clip available on Have a peek; it's not Marriott on there, but it looks just like him.

Ditching Moffatt and Marriott was probably the greatest mistake of Hay's career; but on the basis of the six movies he made with them, he's entitled to eternal membership of the Third Banana. So move over Ted, Joe, Bert, Cliff... and let another Englishman join your ranks. And what will be his first words on arrival? He'll peer over his glasses, give everybody the Dreaded Stare, sniff, shrug his shoulders and say:

"Good morning, boys!"

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Happy Birthday Bobby!

In honor of Bobby Clark's 118th birthday, I'm posting these two images from the collection of Mike Brick, nephew of Paul McCullough, who has graciously consented to their use. These photos are taken from Paul's mother's personal scrapbooks of her son's career, and there's plenty more where they came from. A huge overhaul of The Clark and McCullough Database is now in the works so watch this blog for future announcements.

Clark (right) and McCullough (left), circa 1913, in their vaudeville act Much Ado About Nothing, a variation on their circus routine in which they attempt to put a chair on top of a table. Bobby and Paul had already been comedy teammates for thirteen years at this point! Bobby's greasepaint eyeglasses, of which you can seen an early variation here, had their origins as a part of his traditional clown's whiteface makeup. The putty noses and whiteface would be gone by the end of the decade.

Clark and McCullough as we know and love them, seen here in a publicity still from their RKO short Hokus Focus (1933).

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Will Hay and the Comedy Divide: an Ugly American's Perspective

Thanks to the endless wonder that is the Electromatic Interweb, I've now seen the (near) entirety of Will Hay's film oeuvre (an early short was missing from the DVD set and may be missing in general). We've mentioned Hay at least a few times here but haven't yet truly given the man his due, partly because poor old Will Hay exists in some shadowy netherworld between proper comedy stardom and true Third Banana status. In Britain, he remains the home-grown icon of 30s film comedy. On this side of the Atlantic, Will Hay remains an obscurity.. a bit surprising given not only his accessibility as a comedian, but the decidedly "American" tone of his best work. As an official Hawaiian shirt-wearing Ugly American, I must bestow upon poor Will Hay the Third Banana tag. Who da heck is dis Will Hay, anyway??

If there's any term I would use to describe the bulk of British film comedy of the 1930s, it would be "self-conscious". A deep-rooted sense of tradition is one of the hallmarks of the British music halls, and I believe that this awareness of purpose may have been a factor behind the rather perfunctory air that so much British comedy of the 30s and 40s suffers from. This is not always a refection on the comedians themselves. Arthur Askey is a wonderful, sprightly ultra-comic who makes a huge, obscene joke out of the very act of cracking jokes. The team of Flanagan and Allen, the "Oi!" comedians, engage in mindbending doubletalk routines that sound like Abbott and Costello on speed and then turn around and sing lilting songs that gush sincerity. But for every Bud Flanagan, you have a Charlie Naughton.. maybe two.. maybe more. Comedians who had been called upon to repeat the same routines for so long that they can no longer feel it. They're no longer comedians at that stage. They're performers playing comedians. And, most unfortunately, this self-consciouness seeps into the films, no matter how good the starring comedians may be, manifesting as a kind of tightly-controlled zaniness. Even the best British comics, such as the wonderful George Formby, fought an uphill battle against the rote nature of their film vehicles to no avail. To American eyes and ears, all this self-consciousness violates one of our key expectations from comedy. In America, then as today, entertainers were seen as largely inseparable from the individual. If comics wore a mask when they entertained, it was a slightly caricatured one that revealed some basic truths about the very real person who wore it (Eddie Cantor went one step further by blurring the line between the entertainer's private life and his performances). There was little room for tradition in a world of self-defined iconoclasts. And if the entertainer was seen as inseparable from the entertainer, the entertainer was to be inseparable from the films they appeared in. After the Marx Brothers moved to Hollywood, the scripts for their films became, for a time, free-for-all workshops for some of the nation's finest humorists. The end results bore little resemblance to anything preceding them; they are, undeniably Marx Brothers Movies to the core (and is it any wonder that their least successful comedies, Love Happy and Room Service, weren't originally written as "Marx Brothers Movies"?). The upshoot of this comedy divide was that, in the 30s, American comedies exported to the UK with more ease than vice versa. British audiences simply embraced the artistry of those American acts they liked. As many successful American acts in the UK discovered, this appreciation for skill translated into an overwhelming preference for repetition of that skill. Burns and Allen, for instance, were called upon to repeat the same material endlessly by doting audiences. In America, however, it was as though British comedy did not exist. There wasn't a blanket ban on British imports, but there might as well have been. Most American studios had affiliates, if not wholly-owned subsidiaries, in the UK churning out product tailored to native tastes so it would have been a simple matter to import those films. One must imagine that the studios at least test-screened some of these comedies for select audiences. After all, it would have been within the studios' interests to turn as much of a profit as possible on films that, in many cases, they owned outright. But, ultimately, the studios must have realized the problems posed by the comedy divide. Even when not hopelessly self-aware, the rather gentle nature of most British comedies would have held little appeal to audiences with a taste for the extreme, and those British comedies that aspired to the extreme were the most self-conscious of all, bordering on neurotic. And so it was that Joe E. Brown was a household name in the UK, while George Formby was about as well-known in the US as the guy who cleaned the toilets at the Conoco station down the street.

But Will Hay was a different matter.. or he should have been. One of his films, Hey, Hey, USA! (1938) co-stars Edgar "Slow Burn" Kennedy and was certainly made with the American market in mind. Another, Where's That Fire? (1940) was produced by 20th Century Fox (the only surviving print was found in that studio's film vault in the 1970s). There's also evidence that a few of Hay's films received limited US distribution. What set Hay apart from all those acts that had no hope of entering the US market? To start with, Hay's comedy skills were so great as to override the self-consciousness that make acts like Nervo and Knox, talented as they were, seem so packaged. His natural comic's sensibilities are apparent in his impeccable sense of timing and pantomime, but unlike American comics such as Ted Healy, whose screen characters are reflections of their true personalities (frighteningly enough), Hay's doddering, shifty persona is pure performance. In this regard, Hay's methods are much like those of fellow Karno alumnus Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin whose instantly recognizable characters are similarly a matter of skillful performance rather than channeled behavioral tendencies. Thus there is no more self-consciousness about Hay's comic performances than there is about, say, Jimmy Stewart's dramatic ones. Hay performances "read" as sincere. Just as importantly, Hay's finest movies are wild and, atypically for British comedies of the 30s (but not for American ones), rather ruthless. Although Hay began his film career often playing mild characters in equally mild (to say nothing of mechanical) farces, he soon found his footing as an hilariously amoral opportunist in comedies that rivaled the Marxes in pure anarchic abandon. Hay, who bears a resemblance to Boris Karloff, is all bluff, cringing from those with more power and bullying those with less. He's a fount of ignorance, willing to talk at length about things of which he has absolutely no understanding, and if you call him on it, he'll simply shout you down or give you the Dreaded Glare. He's a tin-pot schemer, wheedling his way into places he has no business being and reaping the whirlwind as a result. Sounds awful, doesn't he? Beware! Hay makes you like and sympathize with the crusty old sod, and not by exposing his character's "wounded inner-child" or whatever, either. You want to see Hay come out on top because, dammit, he's a real person; more real than the plastic nobodies or summer stock villains who own and operate the terribly capricious world he lives in. He represents flawed humanity's inalienable right to be flawed.

Furthering the American similarities, in his best comedies Hay is aided and abetted by two stooges, Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott. The Crazy Gang has often been described as the UK's answer to the Marx Brothers, but that's a pack of dirty lies! LIES! Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott are the UK's answer to the Marx Brothers, and they have the dignity to go about their business as though the question were never asked. Graham Moffatt had been playing comic choir boys, page boys, and office boys in films from the tender age of 14 and, in Hay's comedies, he blossomed into a rotund, lazy, squeaky-voiced conniver, on a mission from Hell to make misery for his elders. There was no elder more elder than his unlikely partner Moore Marriott, a toothless, foolish old fossil played to the hilt by a man in his early fifties (who was, admittedly, toothless). The trio, with Hay as ringleader, were vehicles for a brand of slapstick anarchy that Hay seemed incapable of as a solo. As policemen, firemen, sailors, or railway station porters, Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are models of dimwitted graft and inefficiency, engaged in an eternal corruption competition, but pulling together in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the temperamental Hay began to fear that he was simply becoming one third of a comedy team. He made a concerted effort to shake off Moffatt and Marriott in 1938 before finally succeeding by switching studios from Gainsborough to Ealing in 1941. But new stooges like Charles Hawtry and Claude Hulbert did little to compliment Hay's style, and, as far as I'm concerned, neither did Ealing where he spent the brief remainder of his career. Moffatt and Marriott remained at Gainsborough, stooging for such comedians as Arthur Askey.

That Will Hay remains an obscurity in the US remains a mystery, and it seems he's overdue for discovery here. Granted, the entire purpose of The Third Banana is to bring to light comedians who we feel have been unjustly forgotten, but we also understand the limited appeal of many comics no matter how much we may love them. But Will Hay represents a rather extreme case of Third Banana-itis. There was certainly little chance for success for Hay's films in the US during the 30s when there was scarce opportunity for Hay to engage in the kind of promotion that would have brought him to the American public's attention. As an unknown quantity, it would have taken a leap of faith on the part of any studio to build up Hay as a comedy star in the first place, no matter the quality of his films. But today, in our ever dwindling world, one would think that some enterprising soul would give Hay's films an official stateside release, or at least a little airplay on TCM. Who knows? It may happen yet.

And what about the Great Comedy Divide? World War Two caused seismic shifts in British comedy tastes. The horror of war on the homefront was followed by years of rationing and going without. The love of the predictable was soon supplanted by a growing preference for the unexpected. They received it in the form of the Goons who, molded and inspired by their war experiences, established a new trend in British comedy with their anarchistic and original BBC radio series. The iconoclasts had finally taken over, ultimately giving birth to such institutions as Monty Python and The Beatles. Air-conditioned and freshly mowed post-War America, meanwhile, discovered a taste for the domestic and learned to eschew innovation in favor of focus groups.

Anyway, for those who care, here are my top Will Hay picks:

Windbag the Sailor (1936): Directed by the infamous William Beaudine, who even gets an additional dialogue credit (for which lines?)! Hay is a former canal barge skipper whose tall tales of the sea secure him an unwanted job as captain on a boat, the owner of which intends to scuttle. Hay is teamed for the first time with both Moffatt and Marriott, whose regular screen characters haven't yet quite gelled (Marriott, in particular, plays Harbottle as rather sharp-tongued here, a trait that would be quickly dropped). Features a very funny scene in which all three try to chart the ship's location using some decidedly twisted logic.

Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937): Considered by most to be Will Hay's masterpiece, and it may well be, although I find Ask a Policeman and Where's That Fire? funnier. Oh, Mr. Porter! is beyond doubt the best-looking and best-directed of Hay's features. Hay plays a ne'er-do-well railway "wheel-tapper" who is promoted to stationmaster of the tiny Irish town of Buggleskelly. Moffatt and Marriott are the station's wildly unprincipled regular staff, living off the food they steal from deliveries, and are not at all keen on Hay's attempts to make the station respectable. Hay and co. foil a gang of gun runners using a local ghost story as a cover for their activities.

Ask a Policeman (1939): A great anti-establishment film that features Hay, Moffatt and Marriott as thoroughly corrupt policemen in the tiny town of Turnbotham Round. Sergeant Dudfoot (Hay) hasn't bothered to make an arrest in years, giving the town an extremely false reputation as one of the most law-abiding in the nation. In fact, he's made his job, and those of officers Albert and Harbottle (Moffatt and Marriott) superfluous, and they find they must invent crimes and create false evidence in order to save their careers. Eventually Hay and co. foil a gang of smugglers using a local ghost story as a cover for their activities. Hmm. More wonderfully twisted logic in the sequence in which they set up a speed trap and try to deduce how fast a driver was traveling.

Where's That Fire? (1940): My personal favorite. Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are incompetent firemen in the town of Bishops Wallop who are ordered by the city to improve their antiquated station after they accidentally permit the Town Hall to burn to the ground. After visiting a modern London fire station for inspiration (and pocketing a few loose items, such as an alarm and a fire axe), the boys decide to install a pole. The Great Fire Pole Sequence features Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott blocking traffic and smashing up a china shop across the street as they attempt to maneuver the pole into place, giving scant regard to the chaos they're causing. Probably the greatest sustained comedy sequence of Hay's film career. The film concludes with Hay and co. foiling a gang of crooks who are using their station's antique engine, a duplicate of the one at the Tower of London, to steal the Crown Jewels.

Notable misfires:

Hey, Hey, USA!
(1938): Will Hay attempts to enter the American market and replace Moffatt and Marriott in one go and fails on both counts. After a series of misadventures, Hay, a ship's porter, ends up posing as a noted professor on a voyage to the US and is quickly employed by a rich American passenger as a tutor for his bratty son. Meanwhile, stowaway Edgar Kennedy is a member of a gang who intends to kidnap the boy for ransom. Grating farce follows. Kennedy reacts to Hay's mildly dotty malapropisms and misunderstandings as though Hay were Harpo Marx or Bert Wheeler. His extreme overreactions can be extremely funny, but Hay is far too mild here to warrant them making Kennedy seem more than a little unbalanced. In fact, at the close out, he literally goes mad and is carted away! Ironically, Hay would have had a much better chance at entering the US market with Oh, Mr. Porter!.

The Ghost of St. Michaels (1941): Hay's first film for Ealing features him in his famous music hall schoolmaster role, but Charles Hawtry and Claude Hulbert, as a pupil and fellow teacher respectively, are no substitutes for Moffatt and Marriott. Moreover, the screenplay is pure B-movie hash, spending far more time on the inanities of the thin "mystery" plot than on comic set pieces. What comedy sequences we do get are strangely off-putting. Hay's victimization at the hands of his pupils comes across as more cruel than funny, especially as Hay is here at his most innocuous. Hay's breaking of the "fourth wall" at the end when he addresses the audience is charming, though.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

King Edwards

by Geoff Collins

It's World War One; and tough little Sergeant Brophy (played, appropriately, by tough little Ed Brophy) is appalled by the sorry state of the new recruits. This lamentable shower includes bowler-hatted idiot Victor Potel, effeminate ukulele-clutching superannuated collegian Cliff Edwards, and young millionaire Buster Keaton who joined the army by accident when he went to hire a chauffeur. Sergeant Brophy is far from impressed.

Brophy [giving Potel a silent once-over]: Now there's a picture! Get back inna ranks!

Cliff [steps forward and bursts into song, accompanying himself on his ukulele]: "Here am I, broken-hearted!" [He follows this with a bit of falsetto scat-singing, which dwindles as he realises that Brophy is glaring at him with murderous ferocity. Cliff is wearing a garish collegiate cardigan and a straw hat.]

Brophy [slowly, after a long pause]: What's your name?

Cliff [embarrassed]: Er....

Brophy [snarls]: Don't you know who y'are???

Cliff [pathetic attempt to lighten the situation]: I'm not myself today...

Brophy: I got your number!

Cliff [brightens up considerably; he really means this!]: Will ya call me up sometime?

Brophy [immediate burst of rage]: GET BACK INNA RANKS!!!

This little gem is from the 1930 MGM comedy Doughboys, the most tolerable of the four movies Cliff Edwards made with Buster Keaton. Four, I hear you ask? I also hear you ask: Cliff who?

Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, 1895-1971, was a major vaudeville and Broadway star in the 1920s, a small, beaming fellow who played the ukulele and indulged in a unique type of high-pitched scat-singing which he called "effin". Fortunately he chose not to be billed as Cliff "Effin" Edwards. He was the original Singer in the Rain, and MGM attempted to build him up to movie stardom in the early 30s, during which time he made his four appearances with Keaton - thus beating the accepted record set by You-Know-Who. [There will now be the briefest of pauses while Durante says "Ah'm mortified! What a catastrascope!"]

Three years younger than Eddie Cantor, Cliff had a similar high, clear voice, but that three years makes all the difference. Whereas Cantor brought a whiff of 1910s vaudeville to everything he did, Edwards was firmly rooted in the 1920s, the Jazz Age. Although generally considered more of a popular entertainer than a jazz musician, ukulele virtuoso Cliff made many recordings with his Hot Combination, which was, in effect, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies; and his records often featured a chorus of his screechy scatting. His friendly if effete persona would seem perfectly suited to the early talkies, but he was mostly in the supporting cast (let's face it, he was no Clark Gable) with an occasional showcase in ensemble pieces such as George White's 1935 Scandals. Doughboys is the most watchable of his four Keaton movies [four?] and the one in which he has the nearest thing to a leading role. He has a good solo musical number, "Sing (a Funny Little Thing)" which leads into Buster's apache dance; and earlier in the movie he joins forces with Keaton and the film's director Edward Sedgwick (unbilled, chubby and Ronnie Barker-like, playing the role of the camp cook - although he's not as camp as Cliff) for the only appearance of what we shall be pleased to call the Buster Keaton Trio.

This is as cherishable as Keaton's double-act with Chaplin in Limelight; an unrepeatable one-off. Initially Sedgwick is disgusted with Cliff's romantic, slow-tempo crooning; then it all speeds up and turns hot, and he joins in for a fantastic three-minute scatathon. Cliff plays the ukulele with a pair of drumsticks while Buster holds it and does the chord changes, and they all scat away like a demented jug band until Cliff's howling - the only discernible lyrics being "I want my mama!" - becomes too much for Sergeant Brophy who storms in and breaks the whole thing up. It's all performed in a single continuous take and may be the most joyous moment in all Buster's talkies; just three talented friends having fun.

Let's return briefly to an earlier question: Cliff Edwards was in four Keaton talkies? Yes, if you include the finale of Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which Cliff warbles "Singing in the Rain", and Keaton, sad and silent, is amongst the gallery of uncomfortable-looking MGM stars on display. (His face says it all: "What am I doing here?") Of course, Gene Kelly's Singin' In the Rain went beyond brilliance, but here we have this great song in its original late-20s setting; and Cliff Edwards sang it first.

Doughboys would seem to indicate that MGM intended to team Cliff with Keaton. They certainly worked well together, so who knows what happened? Cliff has hardly more than a running-gag bit part in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath; and then they quietly brought in Jimmy Durante, if such a thing is possible. Yes sir! Yackety yackety yak! I got a million of 'em! Ha-cha-cha-cha-cha ! etc. etc. etc. Poor Buster.

By the mid-1930s, Bing Crosby dominated all, and Cliff's ukulele-accompanied singing style seemed like a bit of a relic, although he continued to star in Broadway shows and on radio, with good supporting roles in movies. He's outstanding as a cynical-but-friendly reporter in His Girl Friday; and he's somewhere in Gone With the Wind, I suspect as just a voice-over; I don't relish having to sit through all four hours of it to find him. Sorry, Cliff, another time maybe.

Cliff was rescued by,of all people, Walt Disney. Yes, readers, if you didn't know this already, and there's no reason why you should, CLIFF EDWARDS IS THE VOICE OF JIMINY CRICKET. I consider his rendition of "When you Wish Upon a Star" to be a thing of beauty; and of course he also sang "Give a Little Whistle". Cliff's association with Disney continued; he's Jim Crow in Dumbo and gets to sing "When I See an Elephant Fly", which allows him to do his scat stuff in a swingier setting than usual. But what good did it do him? Neither movie gives an on-screen credit to the voice artists; so very few people know that in Dumbo, Cliff is reunited with his old adversary Sergeant Brophy. Ed is the voice of Dumbo's pal Timothy the wise-guy little mouse. The deplorable truth is that Cliff received hardly any credit for his exceptional Disney work during his lifetime. According to the Disney organization's commercial soundtrack albums, "Jiminy Cricket" sang his own songs. Disney kept Cliff on the payroll but otherwise didn't do a lot to prevent his decline.

Why did Cliff have such a slide into oblivion? What was he really like? The dialogue he has with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and the dazzling smile he gives her, provide a clue to the real Cliff. It's all there, and more, in He was married three times, and bankrupted three times - not apparently cause-and-effect. He was fond of chorus girls and, let's admit it, quite keen on alcohol, drugs and gambling. His starring career should have continued into the 50s, but it didn't. It's easy to blame Disney - actually, that seems like a good idea - but the truth is that over a long period, Cliff sank his own boat. His death certificate, reproduced on the Garrick website, tells the tale. Cliff died alone and unrecognised, his body unclaimed for days because nobody knew who he was. Where was his family? Few people can be more forgotten than this; and yet this was the man who was Jiminy Cricket.

It's hard to watch Doughboys without reflecting on the fate of its two stars. Both went into the abyss. Buster Keaton eventually found recognition and respect, but it was a close finish. Cliff Edwards slowly disappeared from sight. But somehow, from what we know of Cliff, what his movies tell us, is that he knew exactly what he was doing. Divorced and bankrupt three times? He decided not to learn from his mistakes. So not such a sad life, was it, Cliff? He had a good time. You could probably have a great night out with Cliff Edwards, but it wouldn't be memorable - because the next day you wouldn't remember any of it: "Did we do that?"

Our oft-stated policy on this site is to renew interest in neglected comedians. Cliff, like Cantor and Jolson, is more in the category of a funny singing entertainer, but there's no question that he's a Third Banana; and as proof, you can enjoy his musical talents on

All this should be part of Funny Faces on the Films, part 3, but, like Eddie Cantor, Cliff deserves an article to himself. Unlike Eddie, though, he wasn't pushy. Can you imagine Eddie as Jiminy Cricket? Yes, he would be wonderful, almost perfect voice-casting (and have you ever noticed how much Kermit the Frog sounds like Eddie?) but the opening credits would have to be:

Walt Disney

No, thank you. I'll take Cliff Edwards. He'll always be Jiminy Cricket; and a whole lot more.

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