Wednesday, July 26, 2006

That's Me All Over

by Geoff Collins

My absence from this site over the last couple of weeks has been a product of two factors: a busy period at work [who's he kidding?] and the heatwave which is gripping the whole of England like a bulldog's teeth around a postman's tackle. With temperatures soaring to 36 degrees centigrade, who wants to spend an evening in front of Rubberlegs the Useless Computer? That's Me All Over the Sofa is more like it. My cat Hodge, sprawled out over the floor with his tongue hanging out, looks as if he's been dropped from a great height. His only movement is an occasional tail-flick, as if to say "I'm still alive; don't put me in the bin-bag yet."

Excuses over. When I haven't been sitting in the garden after a hard day at The Finest Art Gallery Outside London [ - haven't mentioned them for a while!] with a cool toddy, I've been wading through some recently acquired DVDs, by coincidence most of them the product of Whitebread City, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "Product" is exactly right of course. I've been a bit harsh about this studio in the past, and I haven't finished yet, but even this prestigious, conventional studio could come up with a few surprises. Here's one:

At the end of his "Singin' in the Rain" routine, Gene Kelly kindly gives his umbrella to a wet little man scurrying along the street. This is Snub Pollard; and it's an interesting thought that he could be playing himself here in this "1927-28 Hollywood", rushing home after another frustrating day at Weiss Brothers, churning out cheapo shorts with Martin Loback in a pathetic attempt to emulate the success of Stan and Ollie. Poor Snub. Think of him the next time you watch this wonderful number, and you'll find it's about Snub, not Gene. He's hardly recognizable, a bit player; yet he represents what really happened to a lot of people when sound came in.

Dusty old comedy is full of such surprises. In previous articles we've discussed the likelihood that many comedy sketches, even individual gags, frequently pre-date their accepted points of origin. Thus "Abbott and Costello" routines were being performed by the English double-act Collinson and Dean ten years earlier (the proof is on; and check out Aaron's astute article on these guys in our Archive). Bill Collinson brought a load of "borrowed" American comedy back from his vaudeville tours in the 1920s, so this material probably dates from a lot earlier than this. "Keep the fire going till we get there" is a gag which has been traced from the first draft of A Day At the Races, via Robb Wilton, and as far back as Dan Leno, 1901. Authorship of the "cheap tailor" sketch "Belt in the Back", as seen in Glorifying the American Girl, was even the subject of a lawsuit [with a belt in the back?] between Cantor and Hearn, as detailed in Variety of May 11, 1949 and one of my previous articles. You'd think the subject would be exhausted by now - or I would. Wrong!

Tolerance of The Wizard of Oz past the endless, soul-destroying Munchkin sequence will reveal a treasure-trove of interpolated lines by the three giants of vaudeville, Third Bananas all, who accompany Dorothy on her journey. Not surprisingly Bert Lahr has the Lion's share. For example, when they all wake up in a snowstorm, he comments absent-mindedly "Unusual weather we're havin', ain't it?" Much-quoted, it's true, but we can't have enough of this seriously-underfilmed genius. This example almost passed me by; but it rang some familiar bells:

Scarecrow: Help! Help! Help!

Tin Man: Well, what happened to you?

Scarecrow: They tore my legs off and they threw them over there! Then they
took my chest out and they threw it over there!

Tin Man (indignant): Well, that's you all over!

Cowardly Lion: They sure knocked the stuffin's outa ya, didn't they?

(and he might have added "Gnong gnong gnong !" but he didn't. You can't have everything.)

....which all goes to show that this unique and original film isn't all that unique and original. Here's an earlier version of the same gag, excerpted in To See Such Fun. It's unattributed but my guess is that it's from Hold My Hand (1938):

Bad Guy (ferociously): I could pick you up and throw you north, south, east and west!

Stanley Lupino (nonchalantly laughs): Heh heh heh! That's me all over! (adjusts his tie as he walks away)

To See Such Fun is a 1977 compilation of scenes from fifty years of British film comedy. It's all in black-and-white, even the colour clips - presumably in a well-meaning attempt to prevent eyestrain - and despite some ferociously choppy editing it gives us the chance to see a lot of fantastic archive material and some incredibly rare Third Bananas. Stanley Lupino's already been mentioned on this site, and will be again, dear readers, I promise you, for he is the Thirdest Banana of all. His version of this venerable gag is placed alongside - and uncharitably edited into - a version from Radio Parade of 1935, which is performed by Haver and Lee.

Haver (with appropriate gestures): One of these days I'll lose my temper with you, and I'll take a hold of your arms and I'll break 'em over there and throw 'em over there! Then I'll get a hold of your legs and I'll break 'em over here and throw 'em over there! Then I'll get your head and crrrush it up, right up like that, and throw it back there! Whadda ya think of that?

Lee (sad, resigned to his fate): That's me all over!

"Haver" is American-accented, tall, bespectacled and annoyed. During World War Two he was "Clay Keyes", host of a radio variety show "The Old Town Hall". "Lee" is a small, baggy-trousered Chaplinesque Englishman. They must be the most obscure double-act in the whole of British music-hall history; I don't even know their first names, or what became of them. One thing is certain: they outclass all the movie's other acts, who are all professional entertainers pretending to be "talented amateurs", but actually coming across as untalented amateurs. Was British variety really this bad?

Hardly. Radio Parade of 1935 is a flashy Art-Deco sequel to the 1933 Radio Parade, a far less stylish film which preserved some far superior talents [and despite the loss of the first reel, it's available for viewing on Type in "Claude Hulbert" for access to all of it]. The 1935 edition, ballyhoo and obnoxious colour sequences notwithstanding, is obviously the second team. Will Hay, who looks just like Boris Karloff here, should have carried his impersonation a stage further and killed them all off, one by one.

Righto, as we're supposed to say over 'ere: Third Banana readers, it's over to you. Tell us more about Haver and Lee. Their bleak, aggressive crosstalk is far from the cosy warmth of the British double-acts such as Flanagan and Allen, and as such, they stand out as something fresh and different. What became of them? Why didn't they appear in other films, newsreels or recordings? [Pathe has a couple of juicy clips which I'll download when Rubberlegs lets me; but if your computer has been manufactured since 1960 you should be able to view these]. And one final question: who wrote "That's me all over"? We'd love to come across an even earlier version, which just goes to show how sad we really are.

That's me all over - until it gets a bit cooler anyway. Goodnight.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Will wundas nevva sizz?

More evidence that classic comedians are the coming pop-culture trend*. NYCopyGuy has brought to my attention this extremely nifty Wheeler and Woolsey music video on YouTube. El Kaye has culled appropriate clips from what appear to be every last one of Bert and Bob's movies and has beautifully set them to Colin Hay's "Circles Erratica". The results are a lot of fun and even rather moving.

El Kaye has also produced a similarly sweet tribute to Bert Wheeler and Dot Lee set to Paul McCartney's "I Will". Check it out!

*The other day a friend of mine pointed out a poster for a local garage band that utilizes a big portrait of Bert Lahr pulling his "gnong gnong gnong" face. It's a coming trend, I tell you!!

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

"My Eddie's not a bummer!"

Compensating for my chronic lack of an entertainment budget by snooping around the Internet Archive, I discovered that Eddie Cantor is particularly well represented on the site. You can see Eddie in action in A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor (1923), a DeForest Phonofilm produced years before talkies took hold with Jolson's famous appearance in The Jazz Singer. Like most of the Phonofilms, Eddie Cantor's film is "canned vaudeville" in the most literal sense. This is Cantor, the Ziegfeld Star, delivering songs and snappy patter on a darkened stage precisely as he had been doing before audiences on Broadway; this is Cantor before radio, before television, and even before his own two silent features, Kid Boots (1926) and Special Delivery (1927). Short of discovering sound film of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, you can't get much more historic than this. Whether or not he's funny here is almost beside the point. Fortunately, he is.. at least I think so.

In the Internet Archive's collections of 78s is the Collected Works of Eddie Cantor, a set of 30 mp3s running the gamut from early records to radio appearances. A keyword search produces even more material. Ain't the internet swell? DON'T YOU KNOW IT!!

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Harold Lloyd On the Air

Of the three top comedians of the silent era, Harold Lloyd was easily the most comfortable with sound. Unlike Chaplin, for whom sound was anathema, or Keaton, whose innovative ideas about sound would have permitted him to remain a silent comic in a talking world, Harold Lloyd wanted to embrace the technology and become a fully-fledged Talking Comedian. In 1929, realizing that talkies were to be more than a passing fad, he reshot the bulk of the finished but unreleased silent Welcome Danger, making it the first talking feature from a major silent comedian (Keaton would have beaten him to the punch. He had wanted to shoot Spite Marriage as a talkie but MGM balked and it was released as a silent in April, six months before Lloyd's picture). Lloyd quickly established a voice for his famous "glass" character, thin, uncertain, but emphatic. The voice didn't add very much to Lloyd's characterization, but it certainly didn't detract, and I'm probably one of the few people who thinks that Harold's desperate calls for help during the building-climbing climax of Feet First (1930) effectively add to the tension rather than spoil the sequence. So comfortable was Lloyd with sound, in fact, that he was even prepared to cast off visuals altogether and move into radio, a bold move for a comedian with only a few years stage experience and a reputation built exclusively on pantomime. Negotiations for a radio series had begun in 1938, but Lloyd was understandably shaky about making the jump. From Billboard:

As it happened, Lloyd needn't have worried about injuring his film standing with a lousy radio series. The picture then in release, Professor Beware, was such a box office disappointment that Lloyd quit movies altogether. Probably having second thoughts about continuing as a performer in any medium, Lloyd nixed the radio deal.

But by 1944, Lloyd was ready for a second go. Instead of a starring role in a series of his own, Lloyd opted to play it safe.. too safe. The Old Gold Comedy Theater was inspired by the overwhelming success of long-running dramatic anthology Lux Radio Theater. While Lux featured adaptations of major movies then in release, usually starring the actual casts, the Old Gold Comedy Theater concentrated exclusively on adaptations of comedies. The show was hosted by Lloyd in much the same capacity as Cecil B. DeMille on Lux. DeMille hosted Lux with such overwhelming authority that, in the words of one Tune In reviewer, he sounded like the voice of God. As host of OGCT, Harold Lloyd was similarly a legitimate voice of authority but, as the "director" of the Comedy Theater, a mild spoof of DeMille as well. "Director" Harold Lloyd opened each show with silly question and answer sessions or games to "cast" that week's adaptation. The material Lloyd had to work with was, if the episodes I've heard are any indication, extremely weak and would have been hopeless no matter who the host, but Lloyd's ineffectual and not terribly interesting voice is no help. Without visuals, Lloyd could be just about anybody (and even being Harold Lloyd in 1944 may not have carried much weight with an audience). The Old Gold Comedy Theater ran for one season only and is mostly of interest for those with a taste for screwball comedy (which I don't). Courtesy of Jerry Haendiges' Same Time, Same Station comes these two episodes of OGCT; A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob (2/11/45) and Vivacious Lady (11/19/44). The adaptation of Lloyd's 1936 feature The Milky Way announced at the end of A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob is included on the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection DVD set. If anyone here has heard it, I'd like to read your assessment.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Funny Faces on the Films - Part 3 (c)

by Geoff Collins

This one's a quickie. It has to be; I've spent far too much time and energy on Charming Chops in the Cheap Seats (part 3) already. My initial intention was a straightforward series of articles based on this four-page photo feature from Film Fun Annual 1939, with equal coverage given to each artiste. Easy enough, you would think. All went well until the third page. Eddie Cantor took over (there's a surprise) and demanded an article of his own ("or I won't appear!") Cliff Edwards, in a much less pushy way, also deserved, and received, his own feature; which leaves us with the remaining Page Three Guys pining away because they haven't been given equal space. Fortunately they're all dead [never thought I'd write those words: fortunately they're all dead] so they don't know they've been sidelined.

HERBERT MUNDIN was sidelined quite early. Compared to someone like Eddie Cantor, round-faced Mundin was small potatoes - in fact he looked like one - but in the 1920s he was a celebrated mainstay of West End musical comedies, a highly-regarded sketch comedian. After a few minor British comedies in the early thirties - do we know anyone who's actually seen East Lynne on the Western Front? - he was off to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. Poor little Herbert got neither, really, but he made a good living, and he's in two films which are frequently revived. In MGM's David Copperfield he's Mr. Barkis, shyly wooing Jessie Ralph ("Barkis is willin'!"); and in The Adventures of Robin Hood he's Much the Miller's Son, shyly wooing Una O'Connor in a repeat of their romance from Cavalcade. Herbert was only forty when he died in a traffic accident on March 5, 1939, and he always looked much older than he actually was; the photo in the Film Fun Annual feature is also in Picture Show Annual 1934, so Herbert's only about thirty-five here although he looks in his fifties. Like Sid Field, whom he resembled in many ways, he had a quiet gift for unforced pathos. Never a movie star, he was an effortless, memorable scene-stealer.

JACK BUCHANAN was also a London stage star, but he was tall, debonair and good-looking, a song-and-dance smoothie with more of a chance at movie stardom than alas! poor Herbert. Jack had two cracks at Hollywood. When the talkies arrived, so did Jack; he made the now-vanished Paris, with Irene Bordoni, and the marvelous Monte Carlo with Jeanette MacDonald, in which he was recently described, unfairly but hilariously, as a "smarmy British wimp". [Who said this? Was it Richard Barrios? I like to give credit where it's due - but I promised not to reveal who called Cantor a "whiny bitch" - didn't I, Aaron?] Jack was in fact Scottish but the accent rarely surfaced. He sang romantic ballads like "Goodnight Vienna" in a soft nasal twang that could wander off-key and back again within a single word. His fans were devoted to him. And as for his dancing, well.... In Great Britain he was often compared to Fred Astaire but he wasn't really in the same league (as who would be?) He clomped about all over the stage like an Afghan hound in tap-shoes, but the miracle was that everyone believed it because he made it look so easy and graceful. Call it charisma, star power, whatever; it worked.

Back from Hollywood at the beginning of 1931, Jack spent the rest of his career as an actor-manager in the London theatres and studios. For such a major star, his movies are incredibly elusive; they were all musical comedies, a few screen originals interspersed with film versions of his stage shows such as This'll Make You Whistle, which had stage and screen versions running in the West End at the same time. The Daily Express, February 11, 1937:

"Jack Buchanan will be seen on stage and screen in adjoining houses and the same show next week. "This'll Make You Whistle" is playing in the flesh at Daly's; on the screen at the Empire.

Jack has only to walk along Lisle Street if he forgets his part."

Fortunately a scratchy old print of the film still exists so we can enjoy his duet with Elsie Randolph, "I'm in a Dancing Mood", a relaxed treat that's been excerpted in "To See Such Fun" and elsewhere. It has a dated charm that seems to sum up the entire decade. This'll Make You Whistle - they don't make titles like that any more. The one Buchanan film we'd most like to see is one of the missing ones: Break the News, co-starring Maurice Chevalier, directed by Rene Clair. How could anyone let this one get lost?

Jack's renaissance came in the early 50s with another stab at Hollywood; and many of us will have seen his outstanding turn as the megalomaniacal producer in The Band Wagon, and wondered "Who's that?" Subsequently Jack made a pleasant Eastmancolor version of his stage success As Long As They're Happy, and the disastrous swansong of Preston Sturges, The Diary of Major Thompson, which did for him what The Sin of Harold Diddlebock did for Harold Lloyd. Sadly it was Jack's swansong too. He deserves to be better remembered; but as so many of his movies have tap-danced away over the hills, never to be seen again, he's rarely mentioned now. He was an excellent song-and-dance man.

ROSCOE KARNS. Kindly allow me to have a ramble through the Roscoes. There was Roscoe Arbuckle, Rosco Ates (the spelling favored by MGM) and there was Roscoe Karns. We don't need to concern ourselves with Arbuckle, except to say that The Day the Laughter Stopped is the best book written about him; and I, Fatty is the worst book written about him (or about anybody).

Rosco Ates stuttered; was stuttering ever amusing? According to Picture Show Annual 1934, he stuttered as a child, overcame this affliction, then became nervous during his first big talkie (Cimarron) which brought it on again. He was a big hit so he carried on with it and it became a trademark. He stutters all over What-No Beer? for "comic relief" but the effect is far from comic. With some justification, he was featured in Tod Browning's Freaks. A genuine stammer can be amusing if comedic talent and timing are involved (Eli Woods, Glenn Melvyn) but not if it's false and forced (Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours; and Rosco Ates)

Roscoe Karns: still a minor player really, a character actor, but a sharp and incisive one. It's a nice coincidence that he shares the page with Cliff Edwards, because a year later he shared a newsroom with him. In His Girl Friday, Cliff is wisecracking reporter Endicott, and Roscoe Karns is wisecracking reporter McCue. It would be hard to find a reporter in this marvelous movie who isn't a wisecracker; Howard Hawks assembled a superb cast and gave everybody a chance to shine. He may have recalled Roscoe's similar turn in It Happened One Night. All our Funny Faces can claim at least one Classic Movie credit.

We've mentioned this before: if there's one fault with Flunny Flaces on the Flilms [I'm gettin' tired of this; does it show?] it's that it confuses and combines character actors with comedians. Roscoe Karns was a character actor, and a very good one; like Ned Sparks before he joined the Undead.

Hopefully part 4 will give me a lot less trouble, but I doubt it. We'll meet a Tin Man, a village idiot, and another Lupino (can't have enough of those!) We'll have an Oh Calamity! and encounter the most notorious of Buster's co-stars. Hahhhhhh! It's your toin next, folks! It won't be long now! Ha-chahhhhh! [Huge, terrifying close-up. Fade out.]

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