Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Hey kids! How's this for major obscure classic comedy news? After a lengthy absence, Greg and Heather Hilbrich have returned to the global interweb with The Shorts Department, a tribute to, and a trading post for, the mindbendingly rare Columbia comedy shorts of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Greg's former site, Half-Way to Hollywood: The Non-Three Stooges Columbia Two Reel Comedy Shorts, was sorely missed when it disappeared in 2004, but The Shorts Department, expanded in scope to include the Columbia serials, cartoons, and East Coast output as well, promises to be a great improvement.

Although I remain ambivalent about Jules White, the Columbia Shorts Department had an astonishing roster of talent and while some, such as Buster Keaton, were ill-served, others flourished there. Hugh Herbert, Shemp Howard, and Richard Lane did some of their best work at Columbia, and others like Gus Schilling, Andy Clyde, and Harry von Zell frankly never had it so good.

A few words about Gus Schilling and Richard Lane. Over the years, Jules White tried time and again to create a new comedy team by almost arbitrarily pairing up contract comics. Most of these scattershot pairings, such as Billy Gilbert and Cliff Nazarro (!) led nowhere, but White finally hit the jackpot by teaming Dick, the tough-guy schemer, with Gus, the milquetoast nebbish in a series that ultimately lasted four years and eleven shorts. By and large, thanks to Dick and Gus's engaging personalities and deft teamwork, the Schilling and Lane comedies are among the best the Columbia shorts unit produced and it's something of a pity that the team was never moved into features (at a time when RKO was cashing in on the success of Abbott and Costello with the likes of Brown and Carney, how could Dick and Gus have possibly gone wrong?). Among the series' rather unique elements is a running gag with Gus's former burlesque partner (and Fay Wray stand-in) Judy Malcolm who, at least once each picture, will walk up to Gus, slap him across the face and exclaim "How dare you remind me of someone I hate!!". Greg has all but one of the Schilling and Lane shorts, the elusive Hold That Monkey (1950), available for sale.

The twenty-three volumes (!!!) of cartoons from Columbia's Screen Gems Studio that Greg has available are also mighty enticing, especially for an animation geek like myself. I'm especially keen on getting my hands on the wildly underrated Fox and Crow shorts and the legendary Krazy Kat cartoon Li'l Anjil (1936), a high-profile attempt by Screen Gems to bring George Herriman's vision to the screen (the silent b/w home movie print I own suggests a misfire, but the animation and backgrounds are beautiful). Much more on the world's most obscure cartoon studio can be found here.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Biffle Diffle!

by Geoff Collins

Abbott and Costello? They don't need our help. After so many years of derogatory sniping in standard film histories to the effect that "The Golden Age of Movie Comedy ended in 1940 with the decline of Laurel and Hardy and the arrival of Abbott and Costello", Bud and Lou are being reappraised and their vast output revalued. Even in sleepy old England their Universal features have been reissued two at a time in sparkling new prints, revealing, if nothing else, their superb photographic quality - especially true in the case of Keep 'Em Flying. Details are on www.coolroom.com. Check it out (I haven't!).

After all these years, how do these vintage sausage-factory products hold up? Well, let me explain first that there's a tendency in this country - and it may also be true in the US - for "amusing" e-mails to circulate amongst office workers with too much time on their hands, pointing out the stereotypical differences between men and women. Such junk is invariably boring and obvious. My friend Rosie receives more than her fair share of this stuff and deletes it without even bothering to read it. The "movie equivalent" of this is that women generally don't care for Laurel and Hardy. They prefer romance and escapism; what's the fascination in two unlovely middle-aged men behaving like babies? They get enough of this at home with their husbands!

Without this in mind, Rosie and I sat down the other night to watch Ride 'Em Cowboy. Why not? British television at the moment is especially idiotic; we both enjoy jazz, and I knew that this movie contained the earliest appearance of Ella Fitzgerald; and I hadn't seen it before (although I have a distant memory of watching the chase sequence, an 8mm print projected onto a sheet in a tent at our school sports day forty years ago, with the boys, pursued by Indians, driving their little car into a river. Completely submerged and surrounded by fish, Lou waves a cup around and "has a drink of water". If Keaton had done this, it would be considered a priceless gag. Lou Costello? Not a chance.)

Twenty minutes into the beautiful new DVD print, and I could see that Rosie wasn't happy. I mentioned that I could do without Dick Foran and the silly romantic plot, and she said "I could do without Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!" To be fair, dear readers, it must be said that Rosie's no "stereotypical woman". She appreciates old movies (and really enjoyed Sons of the Desert, which sort of disproves the "women don't like Stan and Ollie" argument). And Ride 'Em Cowboy is far from being Bud and Lou's best - but they made five movies in 1941. How could they all be good? I should have showed her Hold That Ghost.

Included amongst this treasure trove of A and C reissues is a passable, and probably the best available, print of One Night in the Tropics (reissue title sequence, scratchy soundtrack). Bud and Lou's first movie has been seen so infrequently that Chris Costello, in her affectionate biography Lou's On First, completely mis-remembers its content - although she's exactly right about one point: the plot, such as it is, has been completely shot to pieces in order to ram in several A and C routines, including a lamentably truncated "Who's On First". Nevertheless it's pure joy to see Bud and Lou perform even three minutes of this in nineteen-forty. They're young and fresh, and it's frustrating to have to sit through the dire Allan Jones - Nancy Kelly - Robert Cummings plot (I didn't; I used the fast-forward button) before they appear again and give us "Jonah and the Whale" and "Mustard" and the "deductions for lunch hours and holidays" routine.

After his baby son drowned in 1943, Lou's inner warmth seemed to vanish. You can see it in his eyes. For me, Lost In a Harem is almost unwatchable because Lou is so obviously heartbroken, and this is apparent even in the production stills. To borrow a phrase from John Osborne, he was "dead behind the eyes". He was never the same again; the magic had gone, and it's from this point that we get the legend of Lou the sadistic bully, throwing tantrums and behaving like a prima donna. Why else would guest star Errol Flynn, in the Colgate Comedy Hour of January 13 1952, stamp on Lou's leg? By this time all of Lou's little-boy-lost quality had vanished. He shouts his way through the entire thing; Bud is exhausted and subdued, not even bothering to keep Lou on track any more. That sharp classic-straightman discipline just isn't there. God knows what the rehearsals must have been like; Flynn's burst of unnecessary violence, during the "Niagara Falls" routine, is scarcely comedy. It looks more like revenge.

This is why the 1940-42 A and C movies, with all their tiresome, dated faults, are especially treasurable : they capture Lou's happiness before his world caved in on him. Bud and Lou should never be ignored. Even though they didn't originate much of their material (and the Pathe website shows Collinson and Dean performing their routines ten years earlier; Bill and Alfie were On First!) they preserved a vast chunk of American burlesque comedy. Bless 'em.

And incidentally, continuing with our theme of "who originated this routine?", consider this: Lou Costello, on his first, unsuccessful trip to Hollywood in 1927-28, is visible as an extra in the boxing-match audience during the first reel of The Battle of the Century, a sequence lost until the 1970s. Lou, not surprisingly, is the shortest one in the front row, sitting next to the young guy with the open-neck shirt; a comparison of this movie with the slim "Lou in his early twenties" photo between pages 86 and 87 of Lou's On First confirms that it's him. With its satirical swipe at the Dempsey-Tunney "long count" of September 22 1927 - a corrupt referee taking his time to count out Noah Young, but doing a swift "2-4-6-8-10!" when Stan hits the canvas - it's unquestionably a forerunner of Lou's boxing match in Buck Privates, thirteen years later. Did Lou remember this and recycle it? I think so.

Let's argue!

And why is this article called "Biffle Diffle"? Well, you'll have to watch One Night in the Tropics to find out - or better still, use fast-forward. You know it makes sense!

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Inside Radio Stars, part III: Who the Hell is Keefe Brasselle??

Radio Stars, May, 1933. This puff piece, the first of a series on Eddie Cantor's life, is more or less the "official" version of Eddie's story that would become the foundation of that most legendary of schlocky showbiz biopics, The Eddie Cantor Story (1953). The passage about how Eddie's "Grandma Esther" Kantrowitz missed out on "the one thrill of her poor, drab faithful life" by dying before seeing Eddie in the Follies of 1917 is among several none-too subtly dramatized in the movie. For the real story, please, please read Herbert G. Goldman's invaluable Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom, one of the finest biographies of any classic comedian I've ever read.

The Eddie Cantor Story simply must be seen to be believed. At its core, it's simply a comically inept Technicolor imitation of The Jolson Story, but it's Keefe Brasselle's terrifying performance as Cantor that turns this mediocre heap into a thing of grotesque wonder. Pop-eyed and wispy-voiced, his ears forced out from the sides of his head with putty, Keefe prances and flails his way through the picture, reducing every scene he's in to low farce (it's not a long drop, though). To be completely fair, an over the top, cartoonish impression was apparently precisely what was demanded of Brasselle, case in point being composer Jackie Barnett's equally cartoonish appearance as Jimmy Durante. Cantor himself initially endorsed Brasselle's performance, although the novelty quickly wore off after the critics eviscerated the picture.

All of which begs the question: who the hell is Keefe Brasselle? How did he, a third-string nightclub singer, end up cast as the lead in a major studio biopic despite his bearing not the slightest resemblance to the man he was to be portraying? Why did Warner Brothers even bother casting a singer as all of the musical numbers were to be overdubbed by Cantor anyway? Who was this man who started his film career in 1942 with USS VD: Ship of Shame and ended it in 1975 with X-rated sex comedy If You Don't Stop It... You'll Go Blind!!!, while in between becoming the star of The Keefe Brasselle Show and producing an additional untested three programs (with disastrous results) for CBS thanks to his shadowy friendship with infamous programming chief James Aubrey? Who was this man who, in Madrid, cruelly (for both parties) set up a pre-Batman Adam West with a singing hermaphrodite scuba instructor (as recounted in chapter seven of West's Back to the Batcave) and whose 1968 novelized network expose'/tantrum The CanniBalS attempts to take down not only his former friend Aubrey but Jack Benny as well? What about that mysterious incident in Vegas involving Tobacco Road author Erskine Caldwell that reportedly helped get him his own show? What about that 1971 assault with a deadly weapon charge? Why on earth is there not a biography of this man??

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Inside Radio Stars, part II: Stoopnocracy is Peachy!

Radio Stars, May, 1933. Frederick Chase Taylor and Wilber "Budd" Hulick, alias Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, were two of radio's original satirists, forerunners of Bob and Ray and today's topical sketch comedy shows. A former broker and radio announcer respectively, Stoopnagle and Budd were not really a comedy team in the classic sense. Although Taylor was ostensibly the comic and Hulick the straightman, none of their comedy was quite personality based, and while Taylor did have a hook with his zany "Stoopnocracy" inventions (such as upside-down lighthouses for submarines) and spoonerisms, it wasn't exactly the kind of act you could take on the road. That didn't prevent Paramount from giving them a few lackluster standalone scenes in International House (1933) and Educational attempting a two-reeler, The Inventors, the following year. At their core, Taylor and Hulick were witty yet fundamentally normal men and their generally dry and whimsical satire was dependent upon deapan delivery and/or their adopting a variety of guises, the very antithesis of character comics such as Ed Wynn and Jack Pearl. I wonder if it read as patently false back then as it does to me today to see Taylor and Hulick cavorting for the camera, dressed in madcap costumes. Perhaps it was just what was expected. They had definitely dropped the goofy garb by 1936. Stoopnagle and Budd split in 1937, each initially finding milder success as hosts of their own quiz shows. Taylor continued to crop up on radio as Colonel Stoopnagle, as star, MC, or in support of performers such as Vaughn Monroe, until his death in 1950 at the age of 52. Budd Hulick eventually returned to local radio. Believe it or don't, Budd is still alive today at the age of 101. You can hear a 1935 episode of their show here, courtesy otrcat.com. Visit Rick Squires' terrific Stoopnagle.com for much, much more information about the team, including dozens of articles by Taylor. And here's something nifty I learned from Squires' site: Frederick Taylor and H. P. Lovecraft, one of my favorite authors, were first cousins! Who knew?

This article nicely evokes the sights and sounds of a Stoopnagle and Budd broadcast, at this time a 30 minute, Thursday night program for Pontiac on CBS. It's hard for me to imagine a point in history when an impression of Adolph Hitler ("the new German Chancellor") wasn't complete without a silk top hat.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Inside Radio Stars, part I

Radio Stars, April, 1933. We may have been deep in the throes of the Great Depression, but what a great year for comedy! On the cover, Jack Pearl at the very height of his fame, just prior to making his feature film debut in Meet the Baron at MGM. Inside, more info than I have ever seen anywhere else about Tom Howard. Who knew he owned a kennel of racing whippets? Also revealed is the fact that he and George Shelton used no scripts on the air, a true mark of the seasoned burlesque comic.

Radio Stars, May, 1933. Rudy Vallee on the cover, also at the height of his popularity. It was his show on NBC that featured Shelton and Howard. First, a dramatic tale about Ed Wynn's near financial (and physical) collapse. Wynn's lengthy career was marked by unusually severe ups and downs, so it's little wonder that his emotional state followed suit. And this is the first time I've ever seen a picture of his mother.

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