Friday, September 29, 2006

Stooge Friday!!!

First, a bit of horn-blowing: this month's Three Stooges Journal features my article on Healy "stoogette" Marion "Bonnie" Bonnell accompanied by a couple of photos of Ted and Bonnie that I don't recall ever having seen before. Used to seeing my work online where page-count is an abstraction, I was shocked to discover how long the Bonnell article really is on paper. Very strange. This issue of TSJ also contains an insightful article by Bobby Winslow entitled Lady Godiva, Eh?: Curly and Gendered Laughter that covers some of the same ground as the previously mentioned Boxwell piece about Wheeler and Woolsey, but is written by someone who has an appreciation for the material and understands context. TSJ's narrow focus demonstrates that, no matter how well-known the subjects may be, there is a near inexhaustible wealth of information yet to be revealed about classic comedy. And I must admit that I'm very predisposed towards any magazine that devotes its cover to a big photo of Vernon Dent (and publishes my work). At $9 a year, it's a steal. Contact editor Gary Lassin at for more info.

And the classic comedy vinyl just keeps on coming. Courtesy of Way Out Junk comes 1959's The Three Stooges: Madcap Musical Nonsense at Your House. Riding the crest of their big TV comeback, the Stooges released a number of kiddie albums, and this is a pretty decent one. The first (seemingly improvised) track, "We're Coming to Your House", interestingly turns the notion that adults don't like the Stooges into a selling point for their act:
All: Though Mommy won't like us
and neither will Dad,
We're coming to your house..
Larry: To break up the joint!
I don't think I've seen the generation gap angle used elsewhere in regards to the Three Stooges, but it has long since become the cynical standard practice for advertising to kids. This track gave me the false hope that they'd follow it with a dramatized skit in which the Stooges visit one of their youthful fans and devastate his/her house in an hilarious orgy of whimsical violence. Track six, the final track on side A, ends with a nice bit of conceptual humor as the Stooges cope with the problems inherent in being "in" a record being played. Curly Joe ends up trapped in a groove and tells the kids that they can release him by flipping the record over. Larry closes out the bit with a nice bit of deadpan delivery.
Larry: Careful! That's it.. Don't hurt him with the needle...

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Vaudeville Ends und Odds

A couple of free classic comedy finds for you this week. First, a stash of ancient Weber and Fields recordings on Joe Weber (right) and Lew Fields (left) were THE American comedy team at the turn of the century, and the unprecedented fame they enjoyed probably remained unequalled until the arrival of Laurel and Hardy. Weber and Fields, who began performing together in the Bowery in 1877, established a standard for crosstalk routines that was very much alive through the 1950s, thanks to Abbott and Costello (whose con-man v. patsy dynamic directly reflects that of W&F) and the unsung comics of the fading burlesque scene. Their brand of broad "dutch" dialect comedy may not read as particularly funny today, but there are some good gags and razor-sharp timing to be found in these nearly century old tracks. Incidentally, Weber and Fields made most of these recordings in 1912 after they had reunited following a contentious and highly-publicized 1904 split. They were still active in semi-retirement through the early 1930s, mostly in radio.

And I never thought I'd find this online. Courtesy These Records Are BenT!, the original 1970 cast recording of Minnie's Boys starring Shelley Winters. I don't mind telling you, this isn't quite my cup of thing. It's one thing to read a load of stale half-truths about the Marxes and quite another to hear them dramatized and set to music (produced by Enoch Light!). But I have to admit a fondness for Where Was I (When They Passed Out Luck), a song for the Marxes in which they enumerate their various personal strengths. You just know the actors are sitting on a fake curb while, behind them, some guy dressed as an Italian fruit merchant (with a huge black mustache) silently hawks his wares to passerby. At the end of the song, he probably shoos the Marxes away with a line like "Hey, you-a keeds! You getta way from-a my fruit stand! You-a scaring away my customers!" Chico steals an apple from the cart as the curtain falls.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bert, Bob, etc..

Hal Horn of The Horn Section has posted a review of Wheeler and Woolsey's 1933 anything-goes anti-war epic Diplomaniacs as a part of his series on films that should be on DVD but aren't. At the moment, Bert and Bob are "officially" represented on DVD by public domain prints of Dixiana, Half Shot at Sunrise, and Hook Line and Sinker (all 1930). I have to agree with Hal that Diplomaniacs deserves a DVD release (while disagreeing with him re: Bert's singing abilities) and, as it was one of a handful of W&W pictures released on VHS by Turner Home Entertainment in the early 90s, I have to imagine that it's on some executive's short list should some minor W&W DVD box set ever come about. Unfortunately, the W&W features previously chosen for VHS release give me no faith whatsoever in the Turner corporation's ability to select a decent line-up of Bert and Bob's comedies. Woe for the uninitiated classic comedy fan who is led to believe that the flavorless kiddie flick Kentucky Kernels is in any way representative of Wheeler and Woolsey's best work. Even Diplomaniacs, as fun as it is, is less a showcase for Bert and Bob's talents than a large scale exercise in the kind of outlandish "nut" humor that also gave the world Million Dollar Legs and International Hotel. Perhaps one of these days The Powers That Be will realize what they're sitting on and release a box set including, at least, Cockeyed Cavaliers, Hips Hips Hooray!, The Cuckoos, and So This Is Africa. A man can dream, can't he?

And, while we're on the subject, here's an interesting article by David Boxwell on the gender/sex subtext of Wheeler and Woolsey's pre-Code output. There's enough debate fuel in this article for a series of good-natured fistfights, although some of the conclusions remind me a little too much of the ultimately misguided Another Fine Dress: Role Play in the Films of Laurel and Hardy.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Ted Ray: Fiddling and Fooling

by Geoff Collins

August 29 1974, the Playhouse Theatre, London. A pre-recording of the radio show Does the Team Think? and yes, dear readers, I was there, thrilled at the prospect of seeing four of Britain's greatest comedians in action: Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, Cyril Fletcher and "Professor" Jimmy Edwards. Pre-arranged members of the audience each asked the team a question which the veteran comics then proceeded to answer, hopefully in a lively and amusing way. This particular edition was finally broadcast over six months later, on March 24 1975, and to be honest it hasn't worn well. The actual recording lasted for over an hour, but the final cut is a thirty-minute programme with - thankfully - much of Edwards' boorish filth edited out. (After one particularly obscene comment he signaled a "cut this out" scissors-like mime to the boys in the control room.) Edwards, Fletcher and Askey droned on endlessly and, to be fair, occasionally amusingly; Ted Ray could hardly get a word in. But fifty years' experience as a razor-sharp ad-libber had prepared Ted for such situations. He lets the others yap on and then, every now and then, he crackles in with a one-liner:
Jimmy:, well, you see, it would be nice to be perpetuated in some way...

Ted: Well, you can be in Denmark of course !
and again...
Cyril: My first professional engagement was to perform to the ladies' night of the Hampstead Lacrosse Club - and I got twenty-five bob.

Ted: Was that net?
Ted's best gags were just there. Like a virgin birth, from nowhere. No apparent thought process. Here's one from twenty years earlier, quoted in Bob Monkhouse's Crying With Laughter. The occasion was the warm-up prior to a broadcast of Calling All Forces, with Diana Dors as the Mystery Guest:
Leslie Bridgmont: We've got a smashing mystery glamour star on the show today, boys and girls, who deserves your applause, so please give her a big warm round.

Ted: Why not? Everything else she's got is big and warm and round.
The audience fell about. Bob wrote that ad-lib down, gave it to Ted in a later broadcast and Ted never realised he'd actually "written it".

Ted Ray was one of my heroes. In the early 70s in Britain he was the Maestro, a frequent guest on radio and TV panel games - such as Jokers Wild - where he dazzled the audiences with his ready wit. "Give me any key word and I'll give you four jokes..."

"Ted Ray" was actually Charles Olden, born in Wigan on November 21 1905. Note the date, readers; Ted's year of birth is often given as 1909, but the actual date is in Who's Who for 1955 (in later editions it conveniently disappears!) and in his autobiography Raising the Laughs he states that in April 1926 he was twenty, which is perfectly correct. Initially he reversed his surname and was Nedlo the Gypsy Violinist; then when he realised that he could be funny as himself, in an ordinary suit, just telling jokes in between quick bursts on the violin, his new agent George Barclay suggested (insisted!) that he should have a snappy new name to fit his snappy new image. Leafing through his pocket sporting diary he came up with the name of a half-forgotten golfer, the winner of the 1912 Open: Ted Ray. Barclay liked it immediately.

Ted's "bill matter" was also a stroke of genius: "Fiddling and Fooling". As Michael Kilgarriff has pointed out, it tells you everything: Ted Ray is a violin-playing comedian. And it's worth mentioning at this point that although Ted was born in Wigan and brought up in Liverpool, he was never a "north-country comedian", one of those gormless sub-Formbys inflicted on the British public from time to time. Good job too - or we wouldn't be discussing him here.

Ted was successful for several years on the variety circuit. It's been claimed that his first movie was Elstree Calling, but this was made in 1930, before he was even "Ted Ray". I suspect that Ted's been confused here with Tommy Handley; his movie debut is probably Radio Parade of 1935, although he barely registers at all. It's about 97% violin and 3% jokes; he's also there under false pretences as his first broadcast wasn't until 1939 - and this was almost a disaster as the recording equipment for the repeat broke down and he had to do the same act again in front of the same studio audience. Fortunately he was crafty enough to let them in on the secret and they reacted appropriately in all the right places.

It wasn't until 1949 that Ted got his own series. Tommy Handley, beloved star of ITMA, had died and Ted got Tommy's Thursday night spot. Another stroke of genius: Ted's pal, producer Sidney Smith, came up with the most perfect title of all time - Ray's a Laugh. With its catchy theme tune and an ITMA-like cast of crazy characters including many played with quite unnecessary integrity and realism by Peter Sellers, they were off to a good start; the first series ran for a record sixty-five weeks straight through. But there was only one problem...

"Ray's a Laugh really is crap" writes Roger Lewis in The Life And Death of Peter Sellers; and I hate to admit this, readers, but it's true. The four episodes issued in the BBC Radio Collection in 1990 prove it. Apart from Ted's opening monologues, and the brief sequences where Sellers brings his cardboard characters to vivid life, it's uninspired, witless and a bit desperate, clear evidence of hack writers forced onto a weekly treadmill. The show improved a bit when the ghastly musical interludes disappeared and Ted's domestic sketch with his "wife" Kitty Bluett was expanded to the full half-hour, but even this now sounds irritating and restricted, far from either the naturalistic downbeat realism of Hancock or the fantastic extremes of the Goons. But it was popular enough to run for twelve years. Ted's finest hour was still to come.

He was always loved by the public, and for a brief moment in the early 50s he was a genuine movie star, although his film career never really took flight. The "Red Peppers" sequence of Noel Coward's Meet Me Tonight has Ted at his best - and in Technicolor - in a vignette about a broken-down song-and-dance team; but Ted's most frequently-revived movie is Carry On Teacher. The final scene, when headmaster Ted decides to relinquish his new job because he realises how much his pupils love him ("See you next term...") is genuinely moving and real, the most heart-stopping moment in all the Carry Ons because Ted plays it absolutely straight; pure sincerity and warmth. He could have been a fine dramatic actor, but apart from one more quickie for Peter Rogers - Please Turn Over, a nice little movie, but no classic - that was it. Sid James got the Carry Ons and Ted went back to radio.

Ray's a Laugh and its successor Ted Ray Time ran until 1961; surviving bits of his TV series from the mid-50s show him in fine "fiddling and fooling" form, but by the 1960s he'd slipped a bit. Fortunately the nostalgia boom of the 70s and the celebrations of "fifty years of the BBC" helped the British public to realise how good he really was. It's a recurring trait of this nation not to appreciate national treasures until it's almost too late. On Jokers Wild he held his own against the up-and-coming new talent, and on Does the Team Think? he outclassed his contemporaries, when they were gracious enough to let him, with beautifully-crafted ad-libs.

Sadly Ted was involved in a drink-related motor accident in 1975, at which point his wife Sybil inadvertently revealed his carefully-hidden True Age: "He's too bloody old to drive - he'll be seventy in November." Ted was badly injured and it sent him into a period of deep depression. He'd partly recovered from this and seemed to be bouncing back - he was on great form at a tribute lunch for Jimmy Jewel - but he died on November 8 1977, aged nearly seventy-two. The London Evening News gave him the full front page. They called him "the computer comedian" because of his astonishing ad-lib facility, but this is a bit unfair. Ray's a Laugh may have been mechanical but Ted never was. In his autobiography, Ted generously speaks of Robb Wilton's warmth: "Robb Wilton has it in greater measure than any living comedian"; but these words could equally be applied to Ted himself.

One more example, from the Playhouse Theatre, August 29 1974. Mr. John Harvey asked the team if they thought there should be a marriage test before a marriage license.
Jimmy Edwards: No, you see, both sides...both sides of the happy couple, the male and the female, should have separate tests because, I mean...

Arthur Askey: Well, you can't go in the room together. It'd be rude!

Jimmy: [ignores this altogether] They're required in the marriage to do different things, like you'd have an egg-boiling test for the lady...

Ted: Three minutes hard?!
That was Ted Ray, England's finest stand-up comedian. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, goodnight.

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