Saturday, March 31, 2007

Give a Stooge a Job

by Kevin Kusinitz

The idea of Hollywood getting cozy with Washington is nothing new. Franklin Roosevelt was probably the first to understand the possibilities of getting the presidential message out via movies. Then, as now, movie folk were thrilled to be so close to real power; FDR, a master at stroking egos, was happy to oblige. He must have known he had them in his pocket when the dancers in Footlight Parade proudly displayed his image with placards held over their heads.

Still, my favorite LA/DC co-production is an M-G-M short made circa 1933 on behalf of the National Recovery Administration. No official title, no credits – just an on-screen introduction of “an eminent authority on the NRA” – who turns out to be Jimmy Durante.

Now, I know around these parts Durante’s something of a lowlife, thanks to his oft-maligned partnership with Buster Keaton. But Jimmy isn’t our focus now – even if he does perform an extraordinary tongue-twisting number in one, seemingly-breathless take. Jimmy’s pitch to the on-screen audience is to end unemployment by hiring more workers, going to more doctors, etc. Forget that people could barely pay for just one of anybody or anything during the Depression – “Give a man a job!” he shouts to a banker, a hypochondriac (that’s where the doctors come in) and, finally, an exterminator.

That’s where it got interesting. While I was burning my video copy to DVD, I caught something I’d never realized before. The exterminator’s voice -- was it possible… wait, let me take a good look… the profile… Yes! The bug killer with the slicked-back hair was Moe Howard!

Now, Curly’s solo appearance in Metro’s Roast Beef and Movies was common knowledge, as were the Stooges’ TV appearances, commercials and Moe’s various supporting movie roles in his later years. But this propaganda short? I didn’t recall Moe mentioning it in his autobiography, nor in any book, for that matter. Had I discovered a holy grail of Stooge cinema?

I was ready to take my bows when I searched YouTube for a link to provide you lucky readers. I scrolled down the comments and… well, let’s just say I was a day late and Stooge short. You’ll recognize Moe – he’s the guy who looks like Shemp.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Jungle Full of Bali-Laffs!

Bill Sherman reviews the 1952 Mitchell and Petrillo epic Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla over at Pop Culture Gadabout. Check it out. Personally, I adore the film and think it's a pity Duke and Sammy just made the one picture instead of a string of Grade-Z comedies for producer Jack Broder. They couldn't have lost money at the height of Martin and Lewis Mania. Sammy's Jerry Lewis impression is, of course, amazing but Duke Mitchell, a singer with a reasonable following in 1952, comes across no great shakes here, choking out emotionless lines and looking generally disinterested in everything. However, both his singing and acting are on much better display in his very own not-to-be-missed 1978 exploitation masterpiece The Executioners, aka Massacre Mafia Style. Sage Stallone (Sylvester's son) and Jeffery Duke Mitchell (Duke's son) are reportedly helping to get Duke's lost Executioners sequel Gone With the Pope (!!) restored and released to DVD through Grindhouse Releasing.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007


by Kevin Kusinitz

The worst thing to ever happen to movies was the movie studio. In the beginning, directors churned out two-minute shorts and sold them to theatres. The end. No middleman, no one providing “notes.” At least censors made you clever. Studio heads forced you to be different.

Exhibit A: Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. The Third Banana has already linked to the first ten minutes -- probably the wildest reel ever projected onto a screen in the ‘40s . Very much of its time and way, way ahead of it, as if anticipating the Naked Gun movies and their spawn.

You thought I was going to say that was the best part, right? Well, you’re wrong, because the fun continues for another five whole minutes. It’s only in the following hour or so that an insipid story kicks in, leaving Olsen & Johnson to become -- as John Lennon referred to the Beatles in Help!-- extras in their own movie. As if to drive the point home, they literally disappear near the end. This is how Universal expected to make them into movie stars: take what made them the hottest act on Broadway and pulverize it out of ‘em.

I understand the reasoning behind adding a through-line for Hellzapoppin -- there was no way to re-create the plotless stage version, if only because musical comedy revues tend to be dull going on film. But did they have to devote said through-line to not one but two romantic mix-ups and the putting on of a show and the pedestrian musical numbers? (Nat Perrin, one of the writers of Hellzapoppin, helped to similarly emasculate the Marx Brothers in The Big Store the same year.) Only the astonishing swing dance by the Harlem Congaroo Dancers feels at home. Somehow W.C. Fields turned the same movie-within-a-movie shtick of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break into the most hallucinatory movie of the ‘40s, so what gives? Did Universal figured one weird release a decade was enough?

It’s not a total loss. Olsen & Johnson are funny guys, better than Abbot & Costello (who never seemed to like each other, onscreen or off – for me, something of a turn-off for what’s supposed to be a comedy team.) Hugh Herbert comes off well, as does Mischa Auer. (He’s got to be the only actor who was believable in low-budget horror movies of the ‘30s and slapstick comedies of the ‘40s.) I never cared for Martha Raye, but at least she fits, as does Shemp Howard. Even Elisha Cooke, Jr., fresh from playing the degenerate in The Maltese Falcon, looks at home.

Oddly – or perhaps not – the running gags from the original stage show don’t translate well to the screen. However, the only-in-a-movie bits are hilarious. Characters stepping out of the screen, a detective instantly changing disguise behind a tree, jammed movie frames -- no wonder a woman yelling “Oscar!” or a guy calling for “Mr. Jones” seem uninspired. That kind of humor works only onstage.

This was reinforced when I watched the episode of This is Your Life honoring Ole Olsen. In an effort to replicate the team’s zaniness, host Ralph Edwards and his posse replicated a bunch of gags from the original Hellzapoppin – and they all flat. A “spontaneous” bit with a stooge in the audience doesn't work when a camera is at the ready with a close-up. (It doesn’t help that Edwards has the timing of a broken stopwatch.) What I found most interesting was that even as late as 1961, people were still fully aware who Olsen & Johnson were and showed their appreciation. Chic gets a huge laugh when, rifle in hand, he turns to the blathering Edwards with a trenchant, “Oh, shut up!”

Universal would do well to release boxed set of the Olsen & Johnson movies. Next month, New York’s Film Forum revival house is running Crazy House on a double-bill with Wheeler & Woolsey’s Hips Hips Hooray! – the ultimate designation into hipster cool. And the alleged unavailability of Hellzapoppin makes it that much more desirable. You’d think Universal wanted the bootleggers to make all the money. Which might have tickled Olsen & Johnson to no end.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Sunday

More terrific character interplay as Paul and Jerry perform a Riverboat Gambler skit on The Paul Winchell Show (1953). Incidentally, all of this week's Winch Clips are available in their entirety, plus much, much more, on EarthStation1's Paul Winchell 3 DVD set.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Saturday

Winch, Knucklehead, and company perform "Chloe" on The Paul Winchell Show (1953).

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Friday

Paul and Jerry perform a Frankenstein skit on The Paul Winchell Show (1953). I love Paul's rationalization of having Jerry play the Monster: "It's practically the story of our lives!"

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Thursday

Paul and Jerry on The Perry Como Show in 1955. I wonder what Perry is reacting to off-camera at the beginning...

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Wednesday

Brilliant interplay between Winchell and Mahoney in this 1950 skit from Cavalcade of Stars. Jerry's dream, featuring Paul as an even smaller dummy that Jerry torments mercilessly, is hysterical and certainly one for the psychology textbooks. Winchell was always willing to push the envelope with his ventriloquy act. It's hard to imagine any other ventriloquist from this period.. Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, Peter Brough, Sheri Lewis, etc... going this far to deconstruct the very foundations of ventriloquism.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Tuesday

The opening number and first skit from a 1953 episode of The Paul Winchell Show. Paul and Knucklehead Smiff perform "The Gyspy in My Soul". Enjoy!

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Paul Winchell Week: Monday

Ventriloquist, comedian, voice artist, and artificial heart inventor Paul Winchell should be better known known today. Easily one of the greatest and most innovative ventriloquists of all time, his legacy has been sadly neglected, largely because the bulk of his television career has gone up in smoke. The loss of so much of Winchell's career as a ventriloquist can in part be chalked up to the pitfalls of having spent one's peak years on live TV, but, disturbingly, a great deal of the loss was also by design.

Winchell's ventriloquy act differed from most in that he, as the ventriloquist, generally chose not to fade into the background. Instead, Winchell established a genuine double-act with his dummy, Jerry Mahoney, generating laughs not just from Jerry's wisecracks, but also from the friction between their personalities. Jerry was less a hellraiser in the Charlie McCarthy mold than he was a precocious smart aleck. Not mean-spirited and more than a little endearing, Jerry provided a counterpoint to Winchell's comically vain and rather autocratic taskmaster.. something akin to a father to Jerry, but more like an older brother. Winchell was capable of splitting his personality more vividly and convincingly than any other ventriloquist in the profession and, aided by his near-flawless technique and nuanced puppetry, the results were remarkable and extremely funny. Winchell could hold two sides of a heated argument, be convincingly taken off-guard by one of Jerry's barbs, and even sing duets with his dummies. My first Winch Clip this week is a 1953 ad for Cheer detergent taken from an episode of NBC's The Paul Winchell Show. It's a nice resume of Winchell's performing abilities. His delayed take at Jerry's slight of his ventriloquy technique is perfectly timed and wonderfully real. A word of warning: the jingle, performed on xylophone and ocarina, is a charmer that will stay in your head for weeks.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mr. Noisy Heckler

by Kevin Kusinitz

Anybody who’s tired of today’s movie remakes should take a look at what was going on at Columbia Pictures in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Long before people knew from “recycling,” Harry Cohn’s lieutenants in the short subjects department were in the business of using material over and over.

I never realized how prevalent it was until wandering over to the Columbia Shorts Department site last month. Summary after summary featured the descriptions “REMADE AS” or ‘REMAKE OF.” Among the movies I ordered was Charley Chase’s The Heckler (1940). Having recently watched the 1946 remake, Mr. Noisy, I thought this might make for an interesting comparison. You know, the same way scholars debate the qualities of, say, the different versions of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Only instead of Fredric March, I’d be studying Shemp Howard.

For those who haven’t seen either version, it’s about an obnoxious sports fan whose heckling upsets athletes to the point where they lose. A couple of goons hire him to pull this stunt so they can throw a World Series game. But when the heckler catches a cold and loses his voice, it looks like it’s curtains.

I could fill in the details, but it would only raise questions like: Why do the goons get the heckler liquored up when he’s already told them he’s going to the game? And why doesn’t the coach lock his room during his pep talk to the team? And why doesn’t the heckler lock his room? (Answers: 1. Comedians are always funnier when drunk. 2. So the heckler can walk in and upset them. 3. So the coach and the player can walk in and give the heckler a cold by putting ice cubes on his chest.)

I’ve seen enough remakes so that I was expecting the usual routine of same story, different storyteller. Not this time. Remember when Gus Van Sant directed that shot-for-shot remake if Psycho? He’s got nothing on Edward Bernds, who follows Del Lord’s original so slavishly, you’d think he just digitally replaced Charley Chase with Shemp, until you remember this movie’s six decades old. From the very first seconds – the “tennis match” sign, the spectators moving their heads back and forth in unison, the shot of the players – it was apparent that the directors were literally working off the same page. The dialogue, camera angles, sets, stock footage, the name of the ballplayer (Ole Margarine), the dialogue -- everything is identical. Even supporting players Vernon Dent and John Ince appear in both as a spectator and doctor respectively. If Bud Jamison hadn’t died in 1944, he’d have probably been hired to repeat his role as the guy with the broken hat. Why didn’t Columbia just re-release the original? That would’ve been the ultimate moneysaving move.

The only things I could compare – or, rather, contrast -- were the lead actors. I went into The Heckler thinking I’d prefer Charley Chase, since I tend to dislike remakes and everything that goes with them. This was one time I was wrong. While Chase gives a good enough performance, Shemp seems like a genuine heckler who just happened to be caught on camera. I’ve never warmed up to him as a Stooge, but always enjoyed his solo work, both in shorts and his supporting roles in features. He’s a far better comedic actor than I gave him credit for in the past; the way he shouts the same insults is funnier. Watch Mr. Noisy once and I guarantee you’ll yell “Watch him miss it!” at the next ballgame.

The scene that clinched it for me was when the goons ask the heckler if he plans on going to the ballgame the next day. Chase and Shemp answer in the affirmative, then imitate the sound of a (dubbed in) train whistle. Quick cut to a stock shot of a locomotive, then another quick cut to a bar, where the goons have gotten the heckler drunk. Chase merely looks tipsy, while Shemp appears stunned to have suddenly appeared in this gin joint from out of nowhere. The former is expected; the latter, inspired. It may not read inspired, but coming from a cheap, 17-minute movie, it might as well be Un chien andalou.

Ultimately, Chase’s heckler is more annoying than amusing, while Shemp’s Mr. Noisy is the kind of guy you could have a beer with – after the game. He’s a pain in the butt but a funny pain in the butt. Maybe Chase was more comfortable in his usual nice-guy roles. Yet this character seems to be the same conventioneer he played so hilariously in Sons of the Desert, so what gives? Did booze get the better of both Chase and the heckler?

See, I told you this was going to be a scholarly debate. Shemp actum per vicis quod tractus!

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Old Stone Face meets The Kinkajou!

Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, 1/27/52. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Ed handles his role here as Bert's foil. And given Sullivan's famously straitlaced persona, the payoff of this routine is, I think, even funnier than when Gleason performed it (better yet, you can actually see the payoff here). Sadly not included, though, is the punchline for the "Is This Worth Fighting For?" song. Incidentally, does anyone out there know where this routine originated? Was this one of Bert's routines from his vaudeville days with Tom Moran?

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Great One meets The Kinkajou!

Jackie Gleason doing an impression of Joe Penner?? MY BRAIN!!!! Bert Wheeler guest stars on the August 26th, 1950 episode of Cavalcade of Stars, Jackie Gleason's first variety series on DuMont, the original Fouth Network. Cavalcade of Stars was DuMont's flagship show, costing $15,000 an episode.. no small sum for the tiniest, cheapest network on the air. Jackie had just this season taken over from original Cavalcade host Jerry Lester, and was in the process of creating such famous characters as The Poor Soul, Reggie Van Gleason III, and Ralph Kramden. Bert and Jackie show great rapport in these routines, and Bert, ever the trouper, even does a rough pratfall. As for the picture quality, if the ancient Sumerians had had television, it would probably have looked something like this.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Up Millcreek (Without a Paddle)

by Geoff Collins

Classic? Musicals??

You know, strange as it may seem, Third Banana writers these days give each other very unusual gifts. Obviously, these presents will have some connection with obscure and often prehistoric comedy which, gnome-like, we can sit and absorb and enjoy unbothered by the shallow whims of popular culture.

As our desire to explore the outer limits of arcane humour takes hold even more, it was with joy that I informed Aaron of my latest find, in a cheapo store in my home town of boring old Bedford, in England: a fifty--film DVD set from Millcreek Entertainment entitled Classic Musicals. First question: how did they get fifty movies into a box set measuring 4x13x19 mm ? Easy; on twelve double-sided DVDs. Some of the films are less than an hour long so these are squeezed three to a side. Next question: Are they Classic Musicals ? Wellll.... Question Three: how did Aaron react when I told him my good fortune? I'll quote from his reply:
"AAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! Now I gotta get you another Christmas gift!!!!!! This is just plain Spooky!!!! SPOOKY, I TELL YOU!!!!! Ah, well.."
Calm little chap, isn't he? So clearly this package is available on both sides of the Atlantic. For our British readers, I suggest you try The Works, where it's now reduced to £15. Question Four: how can Millcreek put out fifty movies so cheaply? Because they're all in the Public Domain, that's why. So we have the usual old favourites such as MGM stuff that's somehow avoided copyright renewal (Mr. Imperium, Till the Clouds Roll By, Royal Wedding), mundane oddities with glorious moments (Private Buckaroo, The Fabulous Dorseys, Second Chorus) and quite a lot of absolute crap from Monogram and PRC. The output of PRC is virtually unknown in the UK, which is probably just as well, even the basest of TV channels being unwilling to screen such terminal crumminess. Yet on this set we can see probably their finest hour: Benny Fields in Minstrel Man. Its minstrel-show setting may be flagrantly racist and Benny may be just marginally ahead of Jessel in the faux-Jolson stakes, but he's rare and treasurable. I loved it.

So this set is Highly Recommended to Third Banana readers. Why? Because amidst all that dross - bloody hours of it - there's some wonderful comedy.

For example:

Glorifying the American Girl - one of the most woeful cascades of misery ever inflicted on the American public. The history of this troubled early talkie is covered in some detail in Richard Barrios' A Song in the Dark. Like so many other movies in Millcreek's set, this gloomy backstage sob-story is lacking its Technicolor because it derives from a 1950s TV print made at the time when colour printing wasn't considered a feasible option. Nonetheless, after an hour and a half of Mary Eaton's suffering (or, from the audience's viewpoint, suffering Mary Eaton) We're treated to the full twelve minutes of Eddie Cantor's tailor sketch, "Belt in the Back", filmed, as so many TV sitcoms would be twenty-five years later, in a continuous take using three cameras. It finishes very abruptly (probably the film ran out!) and once or twice the picture slows down and then speeds up again, to most unsettling effect. This is Murphy's Law: The flaws are always during the best sequences (as in Plane Nuts on The Three Stooges Early Years). Readers: check our archive for details of the unsavoury 1949 lawsuit concerning the true authorship of this piece. Who'd have thought that twelve minutes of New York Jewish comedy could arouse such animosity? [And incidentally, who's the little guy playing the customer?]

People Are Funny - and sometimes movies are funny, but not this one, a really, really, really awful Paramount B-picture in which Jack Haley is emasculated and conned out of his rightful property, the People Are Funny radio show. I quote from Millcreek's synopsis:
"His rival Frances Langford (Ozzie Nelson) has plans of his own."
Frances isn't actually portrayed by Ozzie, of course, but she might as well be; her opening "guest star" number is ripped out of the movie in one of the clumsiest cuts I've ever come across. But... joy of joys (no, cancel that; it isn't that thrilling) we get a glimpse of Joe De Rita with hair, as an unwilling victim of "amusing" audience participation. It's near the end; use the fast forward button... please!

Breakfast in Hollywood. My dad really liked this movie, based on genial Tom Brenaman's morning radio show, and his judgment's correct: it's competent and pleasant. We've commented before on the number of lesser-lights [and even Besser-lights] who've copied Bert Lahr and ripped off his mannerisms: Brown, Skelton, Berle, even Snagglepuss. But there's one we forgot. In this little movie Spike Jones and his City Slickers give us their version of the "Glow Worm Idyll", featuring saxist Ernest "Red" Ingle. Loud, bellowing, cross-eyed, baggy-panted, he's very funny...but he's not original. He's the Bastard Prince of the Forest. The Spike Jones record of Chloe has long been acknowledged as a classic (and there's a film version if you can find it, in Bring On the Girls) but nothing will ever convince me that Ingle is anything more than a sub-Lahr in the same way that Jessel and Benny Fields are sub-Jolies. Speaking of which:

Stage Door Canteen: a grim, bleak, out-of-focus print but this most all-star of all all-star films has some rare New York talent between the ephemeral wartime romances: Ed Wynn, apparently in good shape despite the depression he often had to endure [readers: we really love Ed. Is that too obvious?]; sub-Jolie George Jessel, on the phone to his mother ("Hello? Mom? Georgie - your son - from the money every week..."); twitchy-jawed vent Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy; and Franklin Pangborn's so-gay reaction to Johnny Weissmuller's rippling torso: "Oh my, what a chest!" Merle Oberon's brisk "warm smile" for the boys going overseas (it's at 1:21:19) is the most insincere, patronising thing I've ever clapped eyes on. She reveals herself as a goddess who's empty inside - a bit like Vivien Leigh.

Two of the most mediocre pictures in this set are temporarily ignited by the supporting roles played by one-trick-pony Cliff Nazarro, reprising his deadpan, indecipherable double-talk from You'll Never Get Rich; in Trocadero we're treated to a section of his night-club act. Funny? Absolutely. Enduring? Not really. Readers should catch the last ten minutes of Carry On Regardless for Cliff's English equivalent, Stanley Unwin. Why didn't anybody come up with an International Gobbledegook Championship? Nazarro of the US versus Unwin of the UK?

There are also a large number of African-American performers on display as well, where the richness of talent is barely hampered by the shoddy production values of these movies, necessarily (and quite unfairly) having to be made outside mainstream Hollywood. Duke Ellington! Lena Horne! Dusty Fletcher! Cab Calloway! And who's the coolest cat ever in the history of the entire universe?

Louis Jordan!

Uh oh, I forgot something. Let me think for a moment. Ah yes...

The Rocky Horror Picture Show of 1941!!!

Actually that's not the title, but it would be about right. It is in fact All American Co-Ed [the pun may be lost on British readers]. Johnny Downs and Frances Langford are the stars of this 48-minute Roach "streamliner". Frances isn't played by Ozzie Nelson here either, but it would be quite appropriate as nearly everyone else in the movie seems to be indulging themselves in some sort of cross-dressing frenzy. Right from the start, when the "chorus girls' legs" on the opening credit sequence are revealed to be male, boys dress as girls for plot purposes (and probably also for non-plot purposes; who knows what went on here?) and Frances Langford strides around for much of the time in what I can only describe as Tyrolean dungarees. You probably have some idea already what the musical numbers are like. And amidst all this jaw-dropping gender-distortion, sixth-billed, is Harry Langdon at the top of his form. Bespectacled and relaxed, far from the wreck described by Capra, he's adept at dialogue and fully in control of all his familiar gestures, for example s-l-o-w-l-y reacting to an insult by letting his smile drop in sections. Elsewhere, confronted by a Venus Fly Trap and informed of its carnivorous nature, he feeds it his ham sandwich. The Harry Langdon Story was no tragedy, as we'll discuss later. It's genuinely heartening to see him in such good shape. Personally, I think All American Co-Ed is a great little movie for all sorts of reasons, but as Ollie Hardy once said, we won't go into that.

This, then, is the Millcreek Classic Musicals set. Space forbids further detailed examination, so I'll just say find it, buy it, cherish it - and more importantly, comment on it. Let's hear from you. Amos 'n' Andy in Check and Double Check? Wheeler and Woolsey (and ohhhh God, Everett Marshall; where did they find this dope?) in Dixiana? George Givot in Fiesta? Jimmy Durante in Palooka??? The floor is yours, readers. Ha-cha-chaaa!!!

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sam's Our Man

by Geoff Collins

Drat!!! Readers may recall that a while ago I had the audacity to take a gentle peck at Leonard Maltin, no less, for his error in attributing Sam Marx's appearance as an "extra" to A Night At the Opera. Check your facts, I said. The Father of the Marxes died in 1933 and, besides, it's widely known (i.e. in The GrouchoPhile, page 93) that Sam's in Monkey Business, in a great shot with his four sons. What a disgrace, I said. How could a distinguished author and researcher get this so wrong?

Now I find I've been and gorn and done it (as we say over'ere) myself. I am Guilty of Insufficient Research, not to mention that other crime so widespread amongst movie buffs: Wishful Thinking. In an article I wrote last May about the surreal little Victorian genius Dan Leno, I'd expressed quite justifiable regret that he was so poorly represented on film; he'd made a few but all that survives is a never-seen flip-book. Yet the star of James Williamson's tiny 1901 trick-comedy The Big Swallow is exceedingly Dan-like: small, alert, bright-eyed, sharp-faced and funny, every inch a comedian. And as he's "objecting to having his photograph taken" - unlike Chaplin in Kid Auto Races - he's looking at the camera the whole time. From a hundred and six years ago, he's staring straight at us. I really wanted this man to be Dan Leno. Can you blame me?

The bad news is, inevitably, this: it's not Dan Leno. The good news, however is that it's Sam Dalton. Who???

Sam Dalton was a music-hall comedian in Edwardian England who somehow found himself at the Williamson studios in Hove, appearing in The Big Swallow and a couple of other short subjects. Maybe Williamson saw his act at a local hall and recognized an appropriate funnyman for his film experiments; who knows? Sam is relentlessly obscure in the otherwise well-documented world of British Music Hall and I haven't been able to discover a single detail about him, despite long dreary trawls on Google (Have any of you suffered with long dreary trawls?) but he was very definitely The Real Thing. The Big Swallow is one of the earliest examples (Little Tich et Ses Big Boots is another) where a strong comic personality pops off the screen. All those early Pathes and Keystones wherein talentless crazies run around and wave their arms about: they do very little for me. In Classic Comedy, Personality is everything.

So: no excuses. I got it wrong. But I didn't get it wrong about Dan Leno; he's still, and always will be, a Third Banana. And so, at long last, is Sam Dalton. We'd love to know more about him.

Information Please!

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

When Bill Met Phil

by Kevin Kusinitz

I don’t know what I’d do without YouTube. I’ve saved a fortune in DVD purchases thanks to the generosity of people who are way more computer-savvy than me. Recently, some thoughtful movie fan posted the long-lost W.C. Fields segment from Tales of Manhattan. In the first two-and-a-half minutes, Fields is corralled into buying a too-small tuxedo coat by a couple of fast-talking tailors.

That alone would be enough. But the big shock is that one of those sharpies is played by Phil Silvers! My brain did backflips as it desperately tried to accept what I was seeing on my monitor. The brash, motormouth up-and-comer strong-arming the old vaudevillian – you might as well have Adam Sandler and Bert Wheeler going at it. The only thing that could top it is if Ted Healy & His Stooges had shared their scene with Laurel & Hardy in the messy yet underrated Hollywood Party. And while Phil Silvers’ character may be named Santelli, he’s not fooling me: this is Ernest T. Bilko not long before being drafted and shipped off to Ft. Baxter, where he could run his scams in peace.

The clip is a fascinating study of two radically-different comedic styles, one developed in the 1920s and the other strictly rat-a-tat 1942. It’s poignant, in a way, to see Fields pushed around at this stage of his life. There was a time when he would’ve been the conman selling this coat to a confused customer. And we would have loved him for it. Here, it’s hard not to feel some pity for the guy – the last thing he wanted from an audience.

By the time of Tales of Manhattan Fields was becoming something of a relic. Classics they may be now, his last two starring movies, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, were financial flops. This is certainly more of a statement of the times than Fields himself, since today he seems wholly contemporary and, quite possibly, funnier than ever. In a way, it’s astonishing that he was popular enough in his time to have left such a great body of work. Something like the Karl LaFong sequence from It’s Gift feels positively Monty Python. No wonder John Cleese taught a seminar on Fields at UCLA some years ago.

Physically, Fields is past his prime in Tales from Manhattan. Compare his appearance here to the similar If I Had a Million from 1932. Not even Buster Keaton aged so quickly in a decade’s time. (Keaton was supposedly one of the uncredited gagmen of Tales of Manhattan. One can only guess the conversations he and Fields might have had over a Thermos of martinis.)

At times like this, speculation tantalizing thing. If only Fields hadn’t been such a drinker… lived a few more years… starred in a few more classic movies… and even appeared on early TV. Probably opposite Milton Berle.

Yikes. Better not speculate after all.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Cider and Feet

Two silent comedy-oriented 78s from the Edison recording team of Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, "The Half-Ton Duo", courtesy Edgar Leslie and Archie Gottler's Those Charlie Chaplin Feet (1915) is well known as the most popular of the Chaplin Craze novelty songs. Leslie's lyrics nicely sum up the spirit of Chaplin's early Keystones and Mutuals:

Those Charlie Chaplin feet.
Those funny Chaplin feet.
When he comes down the street
He makes a cop flop.
They chase him 'round the town.
An auto knocks him down.
Poor Charlie!
Twenty times a day they spill him
But they never kill him!

Sipping Cider Thru' a Straw is associated with silent comedy in a much more roundabout way. For reasons unknown to me, the sheet music for this 1919 song by David Lee and Carey Morgan is "dedicated to "Fatty" Arbuckle, the Famous Paramount Comedian". The song has a rather "rural" quality which does evoke the small town character of many of Roscoe's shorts, but I'm probably just grasping at straws (heh) here.. Does anyone here know the real reason for the dedication to Roscoe?

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Treadmill to Oblivion

by Kevin Kusinitz

There was a time when Fred Allen was among the biggest names in radio comedy. His flat, nasal delivery could be gentle (as when spoofing small-town America) or bitter (network executives, Hollywood producers and overbearing sponsors were his biggest targets). And although he was clearly aiming at a more intellectual audience than most comedians of the day, it was said that he appealed to both college professors and truck drivers. So why is Fred Allen forgotten by all but the most rabid old-time radio buffs while the names of Jack Benny and Bob Hope live on?

I’ve got a couple of theories. First, he never made a successful transition to television, a medium he despised. Second, much of his humor is topical, thus making some punchlines obscure. Third, his type of topical humor, utterly unique in the 1940s, is de rigeur today.

Having collected old radio shows years ago, I’ve got a fourth, heretical theory: he – or, more to the point, his program -- just isn’t that funny anymore. I mean, I get the jokes, I appreciate his snarky humor, but time and again I wonder, Why aren’t I laughing? And why do I find Jack Benny far, far funnier? It took me years to realize that Benny’s humor – and that of his radio/TV regulars – was based on character. Fred Allen (like Bob Hope and, indeed, most comedians of the day) just told jokes, period. Sure, Fred aimed for a higher IQ, but that doesn’t mean he’s any funnier. For my money, his best material can be found in his essays, letters and excerpts from his two memoirs, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me, where his wit can flow freely, without the “necessary” conventions of comedy found in radio at the time. In other words, he was funnier just being himself than the jokes he wrote for himself. Certainly his ad-libs are better than what today’s comedy writers are paid top dollar to grind out.

As with TV, he never made it in movies, either, with the roles in his handful of features either guest shots or supporting characters. (With his baggy eyes, large cheeks and chipped teeth, he never exactly had a face for the camera, another strike against him). His sole leading role, as Fred Floogle in It’s in the Bag!, made in 1945 at the height of his radio success, was his last chance at stardom other than movies. The story’s simple enough: Fred Floogle, flea-circus owner, comes into his uncle’s $12-million inheritance. Unfortunately, most of the money has ripped-off by the uncle’s lawyers; all Floogle has coming to him is a pool table and five chairs. It’s only after he sells the chairs to an antiques dealer that he discovers one of them has $300,000 hidden inside. Floogle has to track the chairs down to their new owners to get the money.

It’s in the Bag! starts off promisingly, with Fred Allen (as himself) addressing the audience, making sardonic comments about the cast and crew throughout the credits. One of the names, though, gives one pause: Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchock. What’s the writer of Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt and The Paradine Case doing writing a comedy? Good question, and one of I haven’t figured out. Allen must have realized the final cut needed a bit more humor – especially since the movie is filled with murders either attempted or successful (thanks, Alma!) so he adds voice-overs to several scenes while the actors continue to speak their dialogue. (This must explain Morrie Ryskind’s credit for his “special contribution.”) He even does this during the comedy scenes when the dialogue turns sluggish. The results range from disconcerting to confusing to, ultimately, aggravating. More than once you feel like shouting, Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie!

The producers must have been nervous about Allen’s potential box-office, since he’s surrounded by a bunch of guest stars from radio. In what was clearly a favor to his friend, Jack Benny plays his stereotypical cheap self, but with material far more heavy-handed than his own writers ever provided. (Look, his apartment has a hatcheck girl and cigarette machine!) Minerva Pious is Pansy Nussbaum, a regular from Allen’s show. (Her dialogue is all but obliterated by Allen’s voice-over. I bet she loved that). Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, scores as a psychiatrist, while Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee’s witty, understated performances contrast with Allen’s often-sledgehammer delivery.

Great character actors abound. Sidney Toler (sounding an awful lot like his Charlie Chan alter ego) as a cop. John Carradine as one of the evil lawyers. Byron Foulger as a theatre manager, Robert Benchley as an exterminator, Ben Weldon as a bookie and, best of all, William Bendix as a gangster. Old pros, all. It’s in the Bag! a veritable time capsule of the entertainment world of its day, with one of the biggest names of all in the lead. Yet, in the end, it’s as much of a chore as it is a comedy. Too much plot, too little story and, if it’s possible, too many jokes. It was probably ahead of its time then; perhaps it still is.

No matter what people thought of It’s in the Bag!, they still loved Fred’s radio series, at least for another four years, when it was cancelled by NBC. He had already taken a year off a decade or so earlier for hypertension, and did so again. Upon his return, all he could get was a semi-regular gig on Tallulah Bankhead’s radio series, The Big Show. A TV version of his radio series using marionettes in place of real actors failed. Trying to play to his strengths, he floated the idea of spending 30 or 60 minutes a week simply chatting with guests, but, in those pre-Tonight Show days, was greeted by network executives with a big Hunh? At one point, he was reduced to hosting a talent show, for God’s sakes, called Judge For Yourself. You get an idea of what he thought about it when plugging it on the Today show. “As you know,” he tells host Dave Garroway, “there is nothing new under the sun, and we’re out to prove it.”

His best TV gig was his stint as a panelist on What’s my Line? during the last two years of his life. Various episodes floating around on the web and video show Fred at his best: relaxed and witty while never feeling the pressure to actually playing to win. He still looks healthy in the first year or so. By mid-1955, though, he’s suddenly looking older: his face is thinner, the skin hanging off him, and he’s wearing glasses. His delivery is slower. Narrating a radio documentary of W. C. Fields for NBC’s Monitor series finds him barely connected to the material he’s obviously reading off someone else’s script. He died of a heart attack on March 17, 1956, while on a stroll through his beloved Manhattan, three months shy of his 62nd birthday. The Monitor episode aired not long afterwards.

Like Ted Healy before him, Fred Allen blazed a comedic trail later traversed by comedians unlikely ever to have listened to or even heard of him – David Letterman, Bill Maher, the cast of Saturday Night Live – all of them and more do Fred Allen, only with more empty sarcasm than genuine wit. Johnny Carson, notorious for stealing from his betters, took Fred’s “Mighty Allen Art Players” segment for his own “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Allen’s influence reached as far as the UK, too, where his show was heard via shortwave. One group of comedians in particular was especially taken by his frequent use of the word “goon.” So much so, in fact, that Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe named their own series The Goon Show. (Their short-lived TV series, Telegoons, used marionettes as Fred’s did.) Mel Brooks must have remembered It’s in the Bag! from his youth. Although Fred Allen is credited with screen treatment, the story itself goes back to a Russian novel, The Twelve Chairs, which Mel Brooks filmed in 1970. Two gags featured in It’s in the Bag! – the voice of the late uncle speaking to his nephew via a 78 rpm record and the cast marching toward the camera at the finale – are repeated in the outtakes on the Young Frankenstein video.

No doubt Fred Allen would have appreciated the tributes. He would have appreciated not voicing puppets or playing host to amateur singers, too.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Elza Poppin

Found this fun obscurity in the archives of one of my favorite blogs, Allan Holtz's Stripper's Guide. Olsen and Johnson had a byline on Elza Poppin, a daily strip that ran in papers from 1939 to 1944. Of course, Chic and Ole weren't responsible for the art, although George Swanson's loose cartooning is a close cousin of the zany doodles the team usually supplemented their autographs with. Holtz suggests O&J didn't write any of the strips, either. This may be true, but it's quite possible that they donated their joke files to the endeavor. For more Elza Poppin strips, check here and here.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


I mean, HELP! Neither Geoff or myself can keep up with the demand for fresh material here at The Third Banana. There's so much yet to cover, but time constraints and real world obligations prevent us from being able to devote as much time to The Third Banana as we'd like. Rather than allow this blog to hopelessly stagnate, I'm initiating Operation Open Submissions Policy. Fresh submissions would not only help expand the scope of this blog, but would also help to build a community. Frankly, I'd love to see something new here every day, but even one additional item a week would be a great improvement over our current situation. Can you help make it happen? If you think you can, please contact me at

On that note, I'm happy to announce that, starting this week, writer and classic comedy fan Kevin Kusinitz is joining what I hope will be a growing list of Third Banana writers. Stay tuned, folks!


Friday, March 02, 2007

Columbia Titlecards!

The quality of the films may have varied, but Columbia's titlecard designs were always top-notch. Even when the studio began falling back on stock layouts for the shorts' cards, the bouncy typography always kept them interesting. Here are cards for three of Charley Chase's (underrated) Columbia shorts. The portrait cards are naturally my favorites for any of the Columbia series. The sweeping cursive script and stylish deco background nicely reflects the mock-sophisticated tone of Chase's comedy.
Harry Langdon wandered in and out of Columbia's shorts unit long enough to receive a wide variety of titlecards. Again, the portrait cards are the nicest. As you can see, Harry wore a mustache in a few shorts. The brushy model he wore in A Doggone Mixup (1938) is far less obnoxious than the pencil-thin monstrosity that teeters on the edge of his lip in Counsel on De Fence (1934). The mustache on the titlecard for A Doggone Mixup is drawn on. Harry's final solution to the problem of adequately visually maturing his "baby" character was to wear a pair of glasses, as seen in Misbehaving Husbands (1940) and Swingin' on a Rainbow (1945) at Monogram. Sadly, Harry eventually became "and Harry Langdon" at Columbia. At least Keaton never had to receive second billing to El Brendel!

And speaking of El, here are some of his titlecards. El must have had a hell of an agent.. He gets billing over Shemp Howard, too! They do make a better team than Brendel and Langdon, though. Just.

Miscellaneous. The Allen Jenkins and Sidney and Murray cards look as though they were created somewhere other than Columbia's usual titles department... In fact, there's something extremely Warners-ish about the Jenkins card. A late return to portrait cards with Muriel Landers in Tricky Chicks (1957). Columbia's one-shot Our Gang-knockoff Kids Will be Kids (1954) is every bit as bad as rumored and then some. Heaven knows what Jules White was thinking when he cast "The Mischief Makers". Kids who can't act are one thing, but kids who can't act who have been instructed to ape their director's every gesture and line read is something else entirely. As a director, White micromanaged many of the comics he employed, but his technique really backfires here.

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