Saturday, November 18, 2006

Clark and McCullough On the Air!

I recently discovered this mind-crogglingly rare C&McC radio appearance in an episode of NBC's 30 year retrospective series Recollections at Thirty. Broadcast in 1956, the show featured excerpts from NBC's archived transcription discs and even took requests from listeners. The problem is that the vast majority of these historic clips were introduced in the vaguest possible terms. This one, from the 7/4/56 episode, is simply introduced by host Ed Herlihy as being "Clark and McCullough's first radio broadcast" without giving a date or program title. Unless this recording predates the 1926 Friars Club testimonial dinner to the team that was broadcast on WGBS, I have to doubt it. It's still a fascinating clip. Clark and McCullough perform under their own names, and Bobby refers to Paul as "Mac", a nickname I've never heard or read anywhere else. Paul is especially fun here, giving an extremely lively performance that indicates that, before Broadway, the partnership was a little more balanced.

As a bonus, here's another clip from the same episode of Recollections at Thirty that they at least pin down for us. The aforementioned Tom Howard and George Shelton were the resident comedy team of The Rudy Vallee Show in 1935, taking over that duty from the aforementioned Olsen and Johnson. Rudy clearly liked his comedy low and loud. In this excerpt from the July 4, 1935 show, Howard and Shelton do the old "I'll bet I can make you say "Oh no I haven't"" routine. They're not bad, but they're not nearly as good as they later were on It Pays to be Ignorant.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidental."

Happily, that's certainly true for the first fifteen minutes or so. Thanks to nycopyguy for drawing my attention to this YouTube clip. It's amazing how many film conventions are trampled here in such short order. Brilliant is the only word for it, and I'm firmly among those who believe that the kind of punctuated, semi-narrative lunacy you'll see following the truly berserk opening sequence could have been sustained for an hour and a half with perfectly crowd pleasing results. It doesn't, though, and Hellzapoppin', while it remains extremely funny, ultimately takes the announced idea that "films have to have a love story" all too much to heart (although it rebounds with that wonderful shock ending). Each of Universal's subsequent Olsen and Johnson pictures also have their own standalone sequences of concentrated weirdness, most notable being the inspired opening of Crazy House (1943), but none of it was ever quite this revolutionary.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Funniest Film Ever Made?

by Geoff Collins

Ronnie Barker is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. He is as dead as a door-nail. Yet in spite of this, the British television stations, especially the BBC, seem intent on bludgeoning us with a surfeit of Barker until we can take no more. Every single night, for months on end: Porridge, Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies... There's no question that the man was an exceptionally talented comedy actor and writer; but I'd like to turn on the TV just once in a while without encountering his podgy features, whether as wily con Fletcher, stingy "stuttering-is-funny" shopkeeper Arkwright, or in some lame, over-laughtracked sketch with Ronnie Corbett about two dullards at a party, one of whom has sociopathic tendencies. Over-laughtracked? We Brits are seriously over-Barkered.

But there are advantages. Thanks to Britain's current atmosphere of "Ronnie Barker is Flavour-of-the-Month", have resurrected on DVD one of the Great Lost Films. Certainly it's hardly been seen anywhere since 1964. A Home of Your Own, produced by Bob Kellett and directed by Jay Lewis, was initially made to entertain the executives of the building firm Tersons at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Fully aware, through previous experience, of the Grosvenor's crummy acoustics, they made it as a 40-minute silent comedy with sound effects and mutterings, ironically chronicling the delays and sheer incompetence to be encountered on British building sites. (At the beginning an engaged couple sign the documents for their new home; by the time it's completed they have three children and another on the way.) In fact there's no dialogue at all; so it's the ancestor and inspiration for all those later Sykes/Barker efforts: The Plank, Futtock's End, It's Your Move, etc. etc.

The "special feature" of the DVD is a filmed interview with producer Kellett, in which he relates the movie's progression through its initial rejection by an ABPC exec ("much too sophisticated for our audience!") to its placement by an overjoyed British Lion into a thousand cinemas as a support film for A Shot in the Dark. And this is where the trouble starts.

At the premiere of A Shot in the Dark, A Home of Your Own was shown first and the audience rocked. It got a standing ovation. At one point the distinguished, disgruntled voice of George Sanders was heard to remark: "This is much funnier than our film. I can't see why they showed it first - it's gonna make us look extremely dull!"

And so it did, all over the country. I saw it in Bedford; Ivy saw it in Bristol. People were falling out of their seats with laughter, to such an extent that when the main feature came on it was anticlimactic and looked like a complete dud. Now, after entering the realms of legend - many people in Britain remember this little film about a building site - it's back, thanks to the demise of Ronnie Barker who is one of an astonishing number of 1960s British comedy stars in the cast. After all this time, does A Home of Your Own still work? More importantly, does it work on DVD?

Well, yes it does. Ivy and I watched it and we laughed a lot. Admittedly the effect would be stronger in a full cinema with an audience nearly peeing themselves - laughter is the best sort of contagion - but the gags still hit the mark. Ronnie Barker is a cement worker who takes great pride in his newly-laid patio, only to see it indented with footprints when a distracted coworker walks across it to bring him a cup of tea. Forget about Porridge, or Open All Hours, or any of that over-repeated BBC stuff; Ronnie's pained, shocked expression, seen in a close-up, is a beauty. Later in the film, having painstakingly smoothed it all over again, he sees the same thing about to happen once more; so he walks across it to collect his tea. Three or four steps and he realises what he's done. Another crushed "oh no!" close-up. Later still he's smoothed it over yet again, and the camera holds the long-shot for a very long time - then the architect's car drives right across it. Barker's reaction is drastic: he rolls over and over on the cement, banging his fists on it in frustration before finally doing a sort of mad ballet pirouette across it - by which time, according to Ivy's recollection, the audience in the cinema was in need of medical assistance.

There are so many other delightful running gags: burly, weak-bladdered shop-steward Bill Fraser (one of the great comic baddies and a true candidate for Third Bananaship) bursting for a pee but determined not to let his urgent need interfere with the allotted tea break - and continually thwarted by others nipping into the toilet hut just ahead of him; short-sighted carpenter Peter Butterworth, happily unaware of his visual deficiency (he stirs his tea with a succession of inappropriate objects) sawing through a plank and the trestle, before discarding the remains of the trestle onto a huge stack of previously-sawn-through trestles; and the massed hordes of the Post Office Telephones and the Electricity and Gas Boards, digging up and filling in exactly the same stretch of road. In each case the real work is accomplished by two or three men while the other ten or twelve stand around and watch. Each character or set of characters has an appropriate theme tune, courtesy of Ron Goodwin's catchy score.

Best of all is the Stonemason. We see the huge block of stone being delivered, and nervy mason Bernard Cribbins (accompanied by a nautical theme - was this because he'd been such a hit in Carry On Jack?) chipping away at the inscription. One tiny slip in the second line and crack! the entire block splits in two. Later, an increasingly agitated Cribbins is gently mocked, in mime, by one of the building workers; as he chips away at the second block we see the shadows cast by others as they watch and wait for it to happen again - and crack! it happens again. His confidence completely shot, we finally see just the shape of Cribbins as he works on the third block underneath the flag which covers the statue prior to its unveiling. Cribbins' pride and relief soon turn to bewildered embarrassment as the unveiling ceremony reveals his inscription: THE MONEY FOR THIS ERECTION WAS RAISED BY PUBIC SUBSCRIPTIONS.

By sheer coincidence, a recent exhibition at The Finest Art Gallery Outside London was advertised in a local newspaper as containing "loans from pubic and private collections". Coincidence? Or was the God of Comedy at work?

The God of Comedy: that cheeky little fellow was certainly at work on A Home of Your Own. Gleefully satirising the chronic malaise and inefficiency of postwar Britain, it has more laughs per minute than any film I've ever seen. American audiences might not "get it", in the same way that we've never taken to people like Milton Berle or Don Rickles; but I suspect that it would travel well, especially as many of the gags are set up with Keaton-like precision and composition. The cinematography by Denys Coop is exemplary. Although I'm sick of the sight of Ronnie Barker (not his fault, being dead and all) I'll make an exception here; for this was The Film That Undermined A Shot In the Dark. Find it if you can.

Humour is entirely dependent on personal taste; but if you can find a funnier film than this, let me know.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Willkommen - Welcome - Bienvenue

Greetings to those of you who have been directed here from Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy! The aforementioned Clark and McCullough Database can be found at this link, and endless thanks to Mr. Maltin both for the kind write-up and the shocking revelation that Bobby Clark's final film appearance wasn't in The Goldwyn Follies after all, but in There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954! Indeed, director Walter Lang gives Bobby a very nice, and quite showy, cameo towards the end of the picture, being greeted by star Ethel Merman in a backstage scene. As you can see in the frames below, Bobby is perfectly recognizable in his greasepaint eyeglasses and is even wearing his late partner Paul McCullough's famous coat (said to be dogskin in contemporary news clippings). Clark had taken to wearing the coat by the late 40s, an affectionate gesture, no doubt, but one also tinged with some strange symbolic undertones. I also like the idea that Bobby just wandered around dressed like this in public. Interestingly, castmember Mitzi Gaynor had co-starred with Bobby in the off-Broadway production Jollyanna two years prior, and may have had some role in securing his appearance. I have yet more remarkable news about Clark and McCullough coming, so stay tuned folks!

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Friday, November 10, 2006

"More fun, more laughs, and more crushed skulls!"

Here's a real rarity; the first nine minutes of an episode of The Olsen and Johnson Show from 1932. Although Jerry Haendiges has this clip dated to July 7th of that year, all the talk of presidential elections would lead me to believe it's actually from October or November. This is 1930s "nut" humor at its most unhinged as practiced by the undisputed masters of the form. On radio, though, that doesn't really mean a hell of a lot. This chaotic and exhausting clip gives a strong indication of why Olsen and Johnson never clicked in radio. Radio comedy wouldn't be this abstract again until the debut of the Goon Show in 1950, and even the Goon Show had structure. Olsen and Johnson depended as much upon visual gimmickry as crosstalk, arguably more, so their effectiveness is at least halved on radio. The kind of jokes you'll hear in this clip were really just so much window dressing to Olsen and Johnson, who demonstrated for years that it wasn't so much the joke as the telling of it that counted (they even do the "post office" gag here, for godssake). On radio, though, the gag is the gag and without the sight of Chic Johnson nearly collapsing in hysteria over puns that would make Chico Marx cringe, the entire affair falls rather flat. Later, once they had hit their stride with their runaway Vaude-way hit Hellzapoppin', Olsen and Johnson could afford to joke about their failure to conquer radio, but between 1932 and 1934, their inability to make headway on the networks was no laughing matter. Without films (their contract with Warners expired in 1931 after three films) or radio, Olsen and Johnson were left with their touring everything-but-the-kitchen-sink revue, and it appears that that was, at the time, generally regarded as purely for the undiscriminating. The team's marginal pre-Hellzapoppin' reputation is best indicated by the two (enjoyable) micro-budget features they shot for Republic in 1936-7, both of which were clearly aimed at the neighborhood houses and what Variety referred to as "the stix". Ironically, Olsen and Johnson would stage a tremendous comeback by changing not a damn thing about their act and remaining, as Brooks Atkinson put it, "loud, low, and funny".

On a side note, I've long wondered what an Olsen and Johnson version of "The Aristocrats" would have been like. I think all of us have wondered that at one time or another.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Gottle of Geer

by Geoff Collins

Sensation! Peter Brough saved Eric Sykes' life!!! This astonishing revelation comes from Sykes' recent autobiography If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will. In November 1951, Sykes, not yet a comedian himself, was the scriptwriter for Educating Archie, the odd radio phenomenon that made huge star(s) of sloppy-lipped vent Brough and his dummy, cheeky schoolboy Archie Andrews. Sykes was suffering from persistent agonizing headaches, but doctors were unable to pin this down to a specific ailment. A chance phone call from Brough - to whom Sykes described his painful condition - prompted Brough to send his chauffeur-driven limo to whisk Sykes off to a Harley Street specialist. An acute mastoid infection was diagnosed; if left untreated, Sykes would have been dead within three days. So in spite of all we've said about Brough and his limited abilities, he saved the life of Eric Sykes, who is still around today providing glorious comedy as well as some stunning straight acting (as in The Others). Well done, Groughie! Take an apple out of the barrel, as we say over 'ere.

This may be a good place not to recommend Eric Sykes' Comedy Heroes. The title is irresistible but beware! It's one of the most inaccurate books ever written. He laments the "fact" that Buster Keaton is forgotten and that his films aren't being shown anywhere (!!!), and spectacularly misquotes Rob [sic] Wilton's Home Guard sketch; and a full-page photo of "Jimmy Edwards" is actually Paul Whitsun-Jones. There's so much wrong with this book that it depresses me to think of it still being in circulation, misleading all those potential comedy fans. Where were your researchers, Eric?

While on the subject of ventriloquy, all four of our American readers will be familiar with spasm-jawed Edgar Bergen, the man who inspired "Archie" by proving that ventriloquism works well on the radio; but let's take a few moments to reflect on some British ventriloquists who came along in the wake of Brough's success. You couldn't turn on a British television in the sixties without encountering some rictus-faced charmer with his arm stuck up a block of wood. Here's a selection of some of the best from this Golden Age of Venting:

Bobbie Kimber. A very odd act. When glamorous Bobbie appeared on Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s, returning to showbusiness after a long period of inactivity, host Hughie Green asked the audience dramatically "Is it a man - or a woman?" In fact Ronald Victor Robert Kimberley was a man who chose to do his routines, with a full-sized dummy and a more conventionally-sized "sit-on-the-knee" one, in full drag. No explanation was ever given for this, but Bobbie was a convincing "woman" and a good technician. Maybe he felt the act worked better that way; or maybe he was just a tranny who'd found a wonderful excuse for dressing up. Either way, he was years ahead of his time, one for Aaron's collection of Strange and Wonderful Acts. Good for you, Bobbie.

Saveen and Daisy May. Another strange man. I saw Albert Saveen's act in a summer show at Hastings in the sixties. Schoolgirl "Daisy May" was his main dummy; she had her own bank account and a private telephone number. Roy Hudd has often recounted that Daisy May once answered the telephone when he rang up to speak to Albert; "she" engaged Roy in some idle chit-chat and then said "Albert's not in - I'll ask Mr. Saveen to phone you back." Sure enough, later on Saveen called Roy: "Daisy May says you rang earlier."

Despite these quirks, Saveen was a skilful, wily old variety vent. Aside from Daisy May there was, as I recall, a deliberately unconvincing duck dummy (Charlie Quack-Quack) and a live dog, probably a small terrier of some sort. They don't have acts like that any more!

Neville King. Now we're talking. Neville was hilarious. His main dummy was an irascible old cloth-capped Granddad who violently resisted all attempts to put him "gack in the gox" - culminating in a shockingly realistic altercation which left Neville breathless and disheveled, holding the lid down as the muffled voice of the old sod hurled abuse at him from inside the container.

Dennis Spicer was all smiles and charm, a huge hit at the 1964 Royal Variety Performance; and he may have been the most technically accomplished of all. He had enough elan to select two members of the audience and use them as living dummies, "working" them with a tap on the shoulder. Tragically, Dennis was killed in a car crash shortly afterwards; his dummy, in the car with him, remained intact.

And finally my personal favorite: Terry Hall. Facially similar, in his toothy, smiling way, to Dennis Spicer (to such an extent that a member of the public once asked him "Aren't you that ventriloquist who was killed in the car crash?") Terry started his career with Micky Flynn, the Irish Dummy; but he found lasting fame with a later creation, Lenny the Lion. As a boy I absolutely adored Lenny. Like Snagglepuss and any number of other Lions, Lenny was obviously based on Bert Lahr, complete with American accent and camp hand-flapping mannerisms ("Well!") but he was genuinely appealing. Terry and Lenny are completely forgotten now, but not by me. I also saw them in a Hastings summer show. Happy memories!

We musn't close this little survey without a mention of northerner Arthur Worsley who "said nothing" and looked glum while the dummy subjected him to a torrent of insults; or Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear; or Ray Alan and his immortal Lord Charles, an inebriated, monocled aristocrat with more than a touch of Fred Emney; or Archie Andrews himself. As reported earlier in our pages, Archie's been sold by the Broughs, for £34000, to a young ventriloquist, so we may yet see a revival of this unique and often derided form of entertainment.

For fans of archaic ventriloquy, the Pathe website has some fascinating clips of Arthur Prince and Jim, as well as a "pre-Archie" Brough; even as early as 1943 he was hiding his lips with a cigar...

.... all of which brings us to dear old Yorkshire comedian Sandy Powell, who in his last years devised a priceless routine as a hopelessly inept military ventriloquist. This was Sandy's revenge on a succession of crappy vents who populated his touring shows over the years. Wheezily spluttering through a huge false moustache, he allowed his hand to become visible through the dummy's neck-hole. "Oh dear - I seem to have given the game away!" God bless you, Sandy. It needed to be done.

More on this subject later!

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