Thursday, May 31, 2007

"We'll protect your rights until your last penny is gone!"

Your weekly Clark and McCullough fix is here; Odor in the Court (1934), the most highly regarded film of what's left of their canon. Bobby is more of a dynamo in this film than ever before, if such a thing is possible, and Paul, after so many shorts where he barely speaks, suddenly has laughlines and loads of background throwaway gags. Clark and McCullough have often been compared to the Marx Brothers, a comparison you can take or leave, but it must be said that the Marxes were never, ever as aggressive and completely in-control as Bobby and Paul. Even in Duck Soup, the Marxes' most unbridled picture, Minnie's boys are still outsiders running riot in a world of oh-so serious adults. In Odor in the Court, as in many of their best pictures, Clark and McCullough are scheming insiders bending the world to their whims, no matter how bizarre. I'm particularly fond of the establishing shot of their thoroughly savaged office, destroyed as an unavoidable consequence of their desire to play horseshoes indoors.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

At the Races

Before he became radio's most unlikely hit, Edgar Bergen made a series of thirteen one-reelers for Vitaphone. This, At the Races (1934), is the eighth. Edgar's ventriloquy technique never really improved much beyond this (arguably his peak as he was still in vaudeville). He always kept the habit of ducking his head in close to Charlie in order to obscure his lips. Nevertheless, the real keys to Bergen's success are all evident in this short; sharp timing, good gags, solid characterization, and as much innuendo as he could get away with. The snappy opening titlecard would suggest that this print is a post-1936 reissue as Charlie's famous monocle and tux hadn't yet made their appearance in 1934. Eleanore King, Edgar's date, would go on to star in the 1938 roadshow classic Birth of a Baby (directed by former Mack Sennett rival Al Christie).

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Super Service!

Having not yet seen all of their pictures, I really don't know if the Ritz Brothers ever had a better showcase than Hotel Anchovy, their 1934 screen debut for Educational. Certainly, this must be the highest ever concentration of pure Ritz in a film; exhausting, bizarre, and very funny... much funnier than the three Fox pictures I've seen (although some say that their Universal pictures are much worse). Harry, as would forever be the case, gets the lion's share of footage as the act's front-man, and he deserves the attention. Watching Harry's anything-goes performance, it's little wonder why Mel Brooks holds such a high opinion of him. The Ritzes returned in 1936 in a running-gag role in Sing, Baby, Sing for Fox. In the film's most memorable moment, Ted Healy, on loan from MGM for the first time without his stooges, gives Harry, Al, and Jimmy a nostalgic triple-slap.

Part 1

Part 2

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Love, Honor and Respect (the Langdon!)

by Geoff Collins

It's a particular joy to hear of the recovery of a long-lost movie by one of the great comedians. In recent years several Buried Treasures have turned up: Lupino Lane's The Lambeth Walk (with French subtitles!), a couple of Max Miller's Warner features, some early Arbuckle/Keatons, and several of Bill Fields' silent Paramounts. Equally intriguing is the discovery of an unlisted appearance, one that's escaped the standard filmographies. Such a movie is a 1935 two-reeler somewhat clumsily entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!), now available thanks to theshortsdepartment. It's an "industrial" film, made on behalf of the B. F. Goodrich Company, presumably to promote their product and encourage awareness of road safety. (Actually it does neither!) Perversely, there's no director credit and no cast list. The only name mentioned, apart from B. F. Goodrich, is the star, who's mentioned twice - and quite rightly so, for the star is Harry Langdon.

The bad news is: the print quality is appalling. But there's nothing we can do about that; we're stuck with it. So let's concentrate on the comedy. The fact that Columbia Pictures is mentioned briefly (Harry appears "by special arrangement" with them) would suggest that Columbia may have made this rarity and allowed Goodrich to release it as a promo film for their tyres. Although it's credited to Audio Productions Inc. - whoever they were - it certainly looks like a '35 Langdon Columbia; and his uncredited costar is Columbia regular Monty Collins. Who was the director? Collins? Langdon himself? (probably not at this period, but he may have written it.) Arthur Ripley? Harry Edwards? The smooth on-location photography, which would look splendid in any print other than this, suggests Del Lord. Perhaps we'll never know.

In Harry Langdon World, and in the best Langdon pictures, there are Certain Rules. Frank Capra (what does he know?!) has defined the main one: Harry achieves his goals through some sort of divine intervention. Here, his impending marriage to the Police Chief's daughter is in jeopardy because he got a ticket. The old guy's a stickler for the Law, and if Harry gets one more ticket, the wedding's off. Harry's "best pal" Monty Collins, entrusted with the job of delivering hung-over Harry to the ceremony on time, is actually his love-rival and despises him; he puts the clock back to make Harry late, and goes to considerable effort devising cunning ways to get Harry "ticketed" by the cops - for speeding, illegal parking while purchasing an unnecessary canary, bad driving, in fact anything - to get the wedding cancelled and put himself back in the running. Collins is superb in his role as the oily hypocrite, all smiles when Harry's around and weasely double-dyed villainy when he's out of sight. Needless to say it all comes monumentally unstuck for Monty, as Harry is "protected by God" and misses getting a ticket every single time. Harry gets the girl, the cat gets the canary, and Monty gets a spectacular beating-up by several policemen. A Road Safety film!

Aaron's not too keen on this movie, but personally, I love it; and I'd love it even more if I could see what the heck is going on. But we must be grateful that it exists at all, even in such a degraded old print. Film preservation is a funny old business; the worst rubbish often survives in the best condition, and vice versa.

....which brings me neatly to Insufficient Research Syndrome, the dreaded IRS, from which I seem to be suffering lately (see my articles on Sam Dalton and Dan Leno). In my previous piece on Harry I stated that he directed a movie in England in 1937 for Warners, starring Nervo and Knox. To my annoyance I've since discovered that Wise Guys was made by Fox British, and starred another two members of the three-double-act Crazy Gang, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold. Not that this matters much now, I suppose, as this movie probably vanished long ago, but I still feel an obligation to put matters right.

Film preservation in England is even more precarious than it is in the States; in 45 years of avid movie-watching I've never seen anything by Fox British. Gainsborough and Gaumont-British have the highest survival rate, it appears, but there must be huge losses from the smaller outfits: Warners' Teddington studio was hit by a doodlebug in 1944, so any extant British WB movies have only survived thanks to collectors. God knows what happened to the Fox British output. Although Naughton and Gold are usually regarded - by me too, let's admit it - as the lesser lights of the Crazy Gang, on the periphery of the action with their heavy-handed slapstick and barely-comprehensible Scots accents, legend has it that as pantomime clowns they were unsurpassable, hilariously slapping gallons of whitewash about. You know the sort of thing. I'd love to know what they did with their rare chance at a starring vehicle, and how Harry handled the direction. Come on, readers, find Wise Guys. This one is the Holy Grail.

Another scarcity is Stardust, with Lupe Velez and Ben Lyon, also made for a small British studio and subject to various reissues, cuts and re-titling. Harry plays "Otto". The first reissue title is Mad About Money; the US title is He Loved an Actress. At least this one seems to be available, although you may need to hire a private detective to find it. Try; and the best of luck!

How unfortunate that both examples of Harry's work in British studios are in the netherworld of obscurity; and this is also true of most of his American output. It all comes back again to the Curse of Capra. Thanks to this conceited man's personal vendetta, Harry's been denied his rightful place alongside Keaton, Stan and Ollie and - you know the others. It's not fair; but it's not too late to put it right.

Excerpt from Love, Honor, and Obey (the Law!)

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Shemp Meditation Tapes

Straight from WFMU to your temporal lobe via your ear canals: The Shemp Meditation Tapes, volumes one and two! WFMU had copies for sale back in the day but I missed out when they ceased doing catalog business. But now, here they are in all their Shemptastic glory.. for free! Says Shemp Meditation Tape(s) creator Dave the Spazz: "Recommended for new age nitwits and chucklefucks alike....scientifically mixed in Shemp-A-Rama for your enlightened casaba-banging pleasure.... Soar the Horwitz heavens and become one with Shemp's karma on the Heee Beee Beee Beee side... transhempify your mind and cook your chakras on the life-infirming Ahh Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha side." Volume two features the pleasantly Warholesque Sleep, but I personally prefer the multi-textured complexities of Pain.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Let That Be a Lesson To You: Ted Healy in Hollywood Hotel

Ted Healy blew the bulk of his film career at a studio with no feel for comedy, finally found his niche on a loan-out, and then was killed less than a month before his greatest screen appearance had reached the public. It's not as though MGM didn't have its perks. Although he was generally handled as a utility comic, from the beginning the studio was willing to cast Healy in dramatic and semi-dramatic roles that helped boost his stock as a flexible character actor (and kept him extremely busy). Although Ted's dramatics are quite good in Stage Mother (1933) and Death On the Diamond (1934), his real strength was comedy, and MGM rarely delivered on that front. Warners, on the other hand, certainly did, and Ted's rough, streetwise persona was a neat fit for the Warners house style. So in 1937, Ted found himself at Warner Brothers, teamed with Dick Powell for a pair of major musical comedies; Varsity Show, directed by William Keighley, and Hollywood Hotel, directed by Busby Berkeley. It's a whole new world for Ted, and you can tell from the renewed gusto in his performances that he knew it. Warners was also clearly happy to have Ted on board. He's second-billed in Varsity Show, and while he's fourth-billed in Hollywood Hotel, he has even more screentime; so much, in fact, that the film is essentially a Powell/Lane/Healy vehicle. Varsity Show is terrific (and better than anything he appeared in at MGM) but Hollywood Hotel is far and away Ted's finest hour. He sings, he clowns, he shares the film's centerpiece musical number, "Let That Be A Lesson to You", with Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane, and Ted even "gets the girl" at the end (in this case the wonderfully weird Mabel Todd). Contrary to what you may have heard, by 1937, Ted was far from washed-up and adrift. He was a genuine box office draw appearing in huge roles in major musicals for one of Hollywood's Big Three. Any reassessment of his career should begin exactly here.

Ted meets Louella Parsons (no, she can't act worth a damn) in an elevator. SLAP! "Hey, Parsons!"

"... I like you on account-a ya got such a nice swollen face!" Ted's first scene with Mabel Todd, a stooge with a difference. In a just world, Todd and Healy would have made a dozen films together. Ted's throwaway lines and comebacks are priceless.

My favorite musical number of all time! Drive-ins!! Benny Goodman!!! Hamburgers! Poodles doing tricks!! Johnnie 'Scat' Davis!!! Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer!! TED HEALY TORMENTING EDGAR KENNEDY!!!!! Powell and Healy imitating the Kennedy slow-burn!!!! MGM could never have made a number like this.

It would be a sin not to include the scene that follows. Ted so often played semi-straightman to other comics that it's incredible to see none other than Edgar Kennedy do the same for him! A whole new world, indeed!

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Goat from Nowhere!

Here's your weekly dose of Clark and McCullough weirdness; Hey Nanny Nanny, released January 12th, 1934. Ben Holmes had just taken over the director's chair with the previous C&McC short, Snug In the Jug (11/2/33), while Mark Sandrich, who had handled Clark and McCullough from the beginning at RKO, had been moved on to features. He'd soon direct Wheeler and Woolsey's two greatest pictures, Hips, Hips, Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers (both 1934). He also directed something called The Gay Divorcee and another something called Top Hat. At least visually, Mark Sandrich's promotion marked a decided step down in the quality of the Clark and McCullough series. From the looks of things there may have been budget cuts, but Holmes' rather rote directing doesn't help. Nonetheless, there were still some real gems to come along with what is considered to be Bobby and Paul's finest moment in film, Odor In the Court (1934). Hey Nanny Nanny is a by-the-book C&McC outing featuring all the requisite elements: Bobby and Paul brazenly posing as something they most certainly are not, in this case masseurs and/or magicians, a High Society Party, and a goat.

Part one

Part two

Part three

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes

As promised yesterday, here is video number two, Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes (1926). This is another one of those curious little classic comedy crossroads that crop up every now and then when the planets align. Try this on for size: Ted Healy, king of stooges, directed by Stan Laurel. Back when I maintained, I came across Ted and Betty Healy's entry in a 1926 actors yearbook that promotes them as Hal Roach comedy stars. Presumably, Ted and Betty were snapped up by Roach while performing on the West Coast for roles in his All-Star series but, for whatever reasons, this lone comedy, sans Betty (or is she hidden among the co-eds?), resulted before the couple headed back out onto the vaudeville trail. Does anyone know what really happened here? Ted's bumptious and rather surreal personality comes across better than would be expected, especially in his introductory scenes where Laurel allows Ted plenty of latitude to ad-lib (H. M. Walker's titles even read as though he had been paying close attention to Ted's speech patterns), but it's hard to see exactly where he could have gone in silents. Despite second billing beneath Helene Chadwick, the real star of Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes is Jimmy Finlayson, playing his role as college dean to the hilt and beyond. A dramatic actress with a pretty impressive filmography stretching back to 1916, Helene Chadwick typifies the down-on-their-luck, recently-faded stars that Roach populated his All-Star comedies with in that she's simply not very good at comedy. Helene was three years divorced from director and WWI flying ace William Wellman who would go on to win an Oscar in 1937 for A Star is Born, in which Chadwick appears as an extra. It was her last film appearance. She died in 1940 from complications arising from a fall over a chair.

Part one

Part two

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Well, I never did like that carpet, anyway..."

As a special show of thanks to all of you who have been clicking on the Extremely Unobtrusive Ads in the sidebar (and if you aren't among them, please join them), I'm posting two more videos this week. Today, I present Will Hay in the 1942 British Ministry of Information public service short Go To Blazes. This isn't exactly typical Hay comedy (I'll be bringing you some of that later), but it's definitely interesting. Some might find the short's light handling of the threat of Nazi incendiary bombs jarring (especially as Will's comic bungling could conceivably result in real harm), but given the terrible circumstances under which the British public found themselves, I find the approach perfectly understandable, if deeply poignant. A brief word about the director: Walter Forde was formerly a silent comedian who, in the words of Glenn Mitchell, was "almost alone in making comedies in the American style". Forde curtailed his acting career in 1930 to concentrate on directing and handled some of the top British comics of the war years including Arthur Askey in The Ghost Train, the Crazy Gang in Gasbags (both 1941), and Tommy Handley in It's That Man Again (1943).

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Look at 'em! Cossacks! Hoover's Cossacks!!"

In response to Geoff's article below, here are two numbers from Lewis Milestone's amazing Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! that feature Harry Langdon as Egghead, the Communist streetcleaner. It never ceases to amaze me that this film was released in 1933, so advanced is Milestone's directing. Just look at those smooth tracking shots! Jolie is as wonderful here as ever and so is Edgar Connor as Acorn, the showiest role of his too, too brief film career (he died the following year). Harry Langdon's performance is something of a revelation. Although the mannerisms and the costume remain in place, Egghead isn't quite the wistful lost soul of Langdon's silent films. He's verbose, (shakily) altruistic, and brave bordering on reckless, and yet seeing Harry attempt to verbally shame an entire angry mob doesn't comes across as incongruous as you might expect. Langdon's instantly recognizable, finely-honed performance style was perfectly adaptable, it seems, to multiple roles and creative reinterpretations. Could he have played George Bailey and Jefferson Smith? Absolutely!

Excerpt one. Egghead's disdain for plutocrats nearly gets his block knocked off in his first scene. My favorite moment in the film; as the mob of bums duck and cower as mounted police ride through Central Park, Egghead remains defiantly standing and then squats down and waddles in a little circle to continue to harangue the crowd at eye level.

Excerpt two. Egghead defends Bumper and Acorn at a kangaroo court set up by the bums.

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The Trouble With Harry

by Geoff Collins

Poor Harry Langdon. Through a lethal cocktail of ineptitude, stubbornness and arrogance he singly-handedly scuppered his own career at the end of the silent era, and was doomed thereafter to suffer the cruel indignity of appearing in cheapjack one-reelers directed by autocratic hacks who kept yelling at him "Faster! Faster!" Poor Harry. He was such a helpless, hopeless naif that he didn't even understand why he was funny, and he died in poverty and obscurity.

Do you believe this???

Neither do I - but this is the Authorized Version of the Harry Langdon Story, self-servingly trotted out by Sennett and Capra - especially Capra - in their books, and accepted by undiscerning comedy fans ever since. Joyce Rheuban put the record straight a few years ago in her book Harry Langdon: the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene, but copies of this are hard to find. (Hardly surprising, really; nice title, Joyce, but it's never gonna compete with The Three Stooges Scrapbook). Capra's version of his falling-out with Langdon is so vitriolic and bitter, putting the blame entirely on Harry, that it's quite appropriate to see this as belated revenge, a settling of scores.

All three of the "classic" Langdon-Capra features (Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, Long Pants) are available in Great Britain on DVD if you search hard enough (I found my copies in a small shop opposite Waterloo Station). The first two are indisputably fully-paid-up Classics, exploring in detail the narrow yet subtle range of Harry's middle-aged-baby persona. Long Pants, in my humble opinion, doesn't work so well. We're asked to believe that (a) Harry, 42 but looking about 25 at a stretch, is being kept in short pants by his overbearing parents for his own protection and (b) when he eventually does get his Long Pants, he's prepared to take his bride into the woods to shoot her in order to get off with a disinterested floozie whom he's encountered (and been pointedly ignored by) for about two minutes. We, the audience, are expected to have sympathy for this chump - and Capra's supposed to have understood "Harry" much better than Harry did himself. This movie is clearly the parting of the ways between Harry and Capra; there was nowhere else to go.

Another Langdon Myth: Harry disappeared from sight when talkies came in because he was a Silent Film Comedian. Absolute nonsense: if talkies had been widespread in 1924 he would have made talkies in 1924. He was a vaudeville star who happened to break into movies when they were still silent. He was continually in full employment, five years in silents and fifteen in talkies. He starred in sound features (A Soldier's Plaything, See America Thirst, Misbehaving Husbands) as well as a multitude of shorts for Roach, Educational, Paramount, and Columbia - most of which, Mr. Capra, had his Name Above the Title. Poor Harry. What a failure, eh?

Not only was Harry comfortably employed, but he had enough awareness of the "Harry" character to enable him to recycle some choice material from his silent days (and before Capraphiles leap onto this, let me direct them to the talkies of Keaton, Fields and Laurel and Hardy; they did it all the time.) Cold-ridden Harry rubbing limburger cheese on his chest? The Strong Man, 1926; The Hitch-Hiker, 1933. Trying to distract a "cop" who's actually a dummy, by staging various imaginary crimes? Long Pants, 1927; Counsel on de Fence, 1934. Carrying an unconscious woman backwards up a staircase? The Strong Man, 1926; Sue My Lawyer, 1938. Being driven around town at high speed by a murderous maniac? His Marriage Wow, 1925; His Marriage Mixup, 1935; Here Comes Mr. Zerk, 1943.. And there are many more.

Harry's voice? Absolutely fine, high-pitched and wistful, just right for his character. His ability to create gags and original material? Exemplary; he was respected and admired by no less a gagsmith than Stan Laurel, and was amongst the writing team on several Stan-and-Ollie features - and check out how many of those late-Columbias have "story and screenplay by Harry Langdon".

Harry seems to have been happiest at the Roach studios, in congenial surroundings and appreciated by his peers. For a superb glimpse of "late Harry" in action, readers are encouraged to invest in the vast-but-cheap Millcreek "Classic Musicals" set. All-American Co-Ed almost defies description (I had a crack at it in an earlier article) but Harry's obviously having a wonderful time here in spectacularly perverse surroundings. Tears of a clown? Hardly.

Let's examine another Myth: that it's somehow demeaning for a star of feature films to have to go back to short subjects, those much-maligned "cheap shorts" churned out endlessly by Educational, Columbia and RKO. There is some truth here, in that Educational's bleak New York shorts usually did look cheap; but RKO's shorts are every bit as polished as their features, as we can all see from Aaron's recent batch of Bobby-and-Pauls. By the mid-1940s Columbia's shorts were indeed desperately threadbare, and worse was to come, but Harry, being dead, bless him, missed most of this. His decade at Columbia coincided with their most prosperous-looking period.

A goodly selection of Harry's Columbias is available from theshortsdepartment. Buyer beware! The picture quality on some of these is grim indeed - battered old home-movie prints projected onto a screen and then copied - but as these movies are now never shown anywhere it's worth risking permanent eyestrain to see what Harry was up to after "his career finished in 1928". There's no disputing that these shorts are a mixed bunch, and some are downright strange; Jules White's perverted delight in over-violent slapstick (demonstrated most effectively in the films of the Three You-Know-Whos) can be off-putting in the case of gentler talents such as Harry's, but even amidst all this Harry manages to bring in some unique, personal touches, aided no doubt by old working-buddies and Capra-rejects as Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards. There are, inevitably, glorious moments, many of them involving close-ups of Harry's reactions: to his girlfriend's rotten cooking in Tireman, Save My Tires; to a bucketful of sand slowly trickling down his neck in Blonde and Groom; and there's his slow, quizzical, smiley blinking as strong alcohol takes effect, in Cold Turkey.

Ah yes: Cold Turkey. This isolated 1940 Columbia is my favourite Langdon short (so far; haven't seen 'em all yet!) as he drunkenly takes home the live turkey he's won in a raffle at the office. As he staggers along, throwing birdseed over his shoulder, the rope becomes detached from the turkey and catches onto the handle of a go-kart. Without realising it, Harry's now taking home a small African-American boy and throwing birdseed at him. "Say! Wait a minute!" asks cop Bud Jamison. "Just whadda ya intend to do with him???" Harry replies, confidentially: "Gonna eat 'im!"

Del Lord directed this one, and Harry Edwards and Elwood Ullman wrote it; it's so full of delightful and unexpected visual gags that you just want to shout: forget Long Pants! This is the way to make the perfect Harry Langdon comedy. It's a high water-mark; yet even in the weaker Columbias there are stretches of brilliance, for example Harry's drunken (and extremely noisy) entry into his friend's apartment, in Carry Harry. Harry's physical skill with props is at its best here as he causes immense chaos with the electrical gadgets. In Harry Langdon World, if you plug appliances into each other's sockets, they take on each other's attributes, giving Harry a very hot telephone and the opportunity to say, most memorably, "Hey Arthur! You're wanted on the toaster!"

All of which brings us, inevitably, to Sue My Lawyer. Capra describes it as a cheap one-reeler in which Harry, looking "like a gargoyle", attempts a pathetic re-tread of "carrying an unconscious lady upstairs" while an irascible, unsympathetic director (this bit may have been true; it was Jules White!) pitilessly urges him to work faster!!! Once again, absolute tosh. Harry looks great and behaves exactly how "Harry Langdon" should behave, trying to impress as a would-be lawyer with his foot stuck in a bucket of water. The staircase scene is tighter and more compact than in The Strong Man but it's still a riot and there are some fresh gags; and, in true Langdon fashion, "God" helps him to catch the bad guys. With its excellent photography (evident in spite of the murky DVD copy) and sharp editing, Sue My Lawyer is far from the sad cheapie described with such malicious relish by Capra. Yet it's hardly been seen anywhere since 1938, unlike other Columbias made by the Three Whatever-Their-Name-Is: so Capra's version of events is the one in the history books. Shame!

Sue My Lawyer also has the credit line "story by Harry Langdon". Many other Columbias and Educationals were also written or co-written by Harry, and as we've already mentioned, his skills as a writer were put to full use at Roach's studio. He occasionally directed too: surely the most fascinating and elusive "Langdon" movie is the one he directed at Warners' British studio in 1937: Wise Guys, starring Nervo and Knox. It must answer all sorts of questions about Harry's grasp of timing and comedy technique. Does it exist anywhere? Can we see it, please?

Harry's life after 1928 was no tragedy. He was busy and fully occupied. As if to prove this, Hollywood On Parade A-12 briefly shows him at the Agua Caliente racetrack with a lovely female companion, and boy! is he having a good time! It's unquestionably a pity that he died when he was only sixty, but at least he was spared the horrors of Columbia's postwar treadmill and the humiliation of further work with pseudo-Swede El Brendel. Harry Langdon was a great comedian - did you get that, everybody? - and he's easily in the Top Six of all time. (Readers, Let's Argue about the other five!) If there is a tragedy, it's this: Harry's movies haven't yet been subject to the meticulous "full restoration" programmes associated with the output of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Even Harry's "classic silents" are handicapped by crummy prints, unnecessary ugly "remade" titles and obtrusive "funny" music. We shouldn't have to go blind or deaf to see what Harry's doing. He's far too good for that.

Forget Frank Capra. Who actually wants to sit through more than two hours of It's a Wonderful Life? Watch something by Harry Langdon instead; it's much more fun. Or, better still, imagine Harry Langdon playing George Bailey, or Mr. Smith, or Mr. Deeds. He could have done it; he was much, much better than most people realise. Check him out.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wanna Buy a Career?

Joe Penner's post-Baker's Broadcast radio career was one long downhill slide. This blurb from the October 1st, 1938 issue of Radio Guide strives to draw a distinction between the old "wanna buy a duck?" Penner and the new "situation comedy" Penner, whose second series for CBS was to premiere on the 5th. Of course, the "wanna buy a duck?" phase of Penner's career had been over since 1936 when he ditched Baker's and pilfered Jack Benny's head writer Harry Conn (overrated, as it turned out) for a new series structured around the misadventures of the "Park Avenue Penners". Apparently few noticed. Joe's monogrammed shirt is pretty cool, though.

The In Hollywood photo feature on the right comes from the March 25th, 1939 issue of Radio Guide. Penner's second series for CBS was about to fold (his third and final series would be on NBC Blue). It's kind of sad that Joe's writers had to resort to a gimmick like a masked man and a letter that can't be opened until the end of the series to "create suspense" on the show instead of, you know, creating suspense through engaging narrative. What do you bet the letter said something like "Huskies Whole Wheat Flakes can't be beat!"? And what's Eddie Cantor doing down there? Don't do it, Eddie!!!!

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Jitters the Butler

Released December 20th, 1932, Jitters the Butler is another wonderful Mark Sandrich-directed Clark and McCullough weirdfest. Again, we have Jimmy Finlayson in there doing his thang ("DOOOO'H!!!"), but this time around it's Robert Grieg who acts as Bobby and Paul's foil. Starting with his role as Hives in Animal Crackers (1930), Robert Grieg made a comfortable Hollywood career for himself playing butlers, valets, and manservants. I doubt he ever had another role quite this... unusual. Aside from being just generally strange, Jitters enjoys, and I mean really enjoys, being kicked in the ass.. hard.. and repeatedly. And he isn't the only one! Oh, those pre-Code comedies! Despite Joe Adamson's characterization of Grieg as "an actor who confuses playing a part with reciting dialogue", his deadpan strangeness is extremely funny here. Other nice bits include Bobby and Paul converting their streetcleaning uniforms into panama suits, and, my favorite, simply sitting on a couch, tossing firecrackers into a hat, and erupting with genuinely unrestrained glee with each explosion.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Biffle and Shooster in "The Case of the Missing Plot"

You wanna know what Third Banana writers do when they're not writing about classic comedians? They trade arms for hostages! And then they make up fake classic comedians! I have the team of Farnsworth and Katz, and Nick Santa Maria now has Biffle and Shooster. Nick is second to none when it comes to writing snappy gag dialogue in the Ryskind/Kaufman/Kalmar/Ruby vein. Vot a talent, that boychik!

click! CLICK!!

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Friday, May 11, 2007

¡Nunca me hagan eso!

When gringos talk about classic Mexican comedy, which admittedly is scarcely this side of never, nine times out of ten what they're really talking about is Mario Moreno, "Cantinflas". Not surprising as Moreno was the only one of dozens of popular Mexican comics of the 40s and 50s to break into Hollywood. Just about everyone has seen the Michael Todd version of Around the World in 80 Days at least once. But while Moreno's reputation is justly deserved, it has to be admitted that he's usually something of a mystery to non-Spanish speakers. While an extremely talented mime, most of Moreno's unparalleled popularity in Mexico and South America was due to his comically confused manner of speaking, "Cantinfleada", which is completely absent from his two Hollywood features. Coupled with the fact that Moreno's screen character was based largely on regional archetypes, it's little wonder that Cantinflas remains an enigma in the US, a kind of shorthand for "Mexican comedian".

But while Cantinflas was the unquestioned king of Mexican comedy in the 40s and 50s, the lower ranks were occupied by comedians like Germán Valdez (Tin-Tan) and Adalberto Martinez (Resortes), talented comics of far less pretension than Mario Moreno.

Then there's Antonio Espino, "Clavillazo" (roughly translated as "Pinhead"). It's an understatement to say that there's nothing pretentious or mysterious about Clavillazo. In his oversized suit and peculiar (and ubiquitous) hat, Antonio Espino walks a line between comic and clown, eager and willing to go the extra mile to get a laugh, yet at all times in admirable control of his performances. In El Castillo de los monstruos (1958), for instance, he emphasizes his grief in one scene by smashing crockery over his head, a ridiculously outsized gesture, but meticulously timed as a way to punctuate the sequence. His doubletakes are pure cartoon, often including going stiff with shock and falling backwards out of frame. For Espino, pulling funny faces and making wild getures aren't simply quick ways to get laughs; they amount to a definite performance style, comic excess as aesthetic. Clavillazo was frequently billed as "El Hombre de las Manos Elocuentes" due to his reliance on exaggerated hand gestures to punctuate dialogue. Even the simplest lines are cause for Clavillazo to throw his body into extreme poses. He's also a master of catchphrases, using a good half dozen repeatedly including "la cosa está calmada", "¡nunca me hagan eso!", and "No más!".

The most remarkable thing about Antonio Espino, though, is that although subtlety is largely absent from his performances, he's still likable, sympathetic, and at times even charming. Like Buster Keaton before him, Clavillazo is usually portrayed as an underdog who wins the girl and saves the day through sudden bursts of previously untapped courage and guile.. and often, in Clavillazo's case, sheer unmitigated gall. Thanks to Antonio Espino's evident self-awareness as a performer, his character is always something more than a pile of comedy gimmicks.

From 1951 to 1965, Antonio Espino starred in thirty-two features for virtually every studio in Mexico. He tackled every comic genre at least once including westerns, mysteries, fantasies, horror and science fiction spoofs, and situation comedies. Espino appears to have hit his peak in 1956 and 1957 when, aside from hosting a hit TV series, he produced a remarkable ten movies in two years including the horror spoofs El Fantasma de la casa roja and El Castillo de los monstruos (in which Clavillazo battles a mad scientist, a vampire, Frankenstein's monster, two wolf men, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon). In 1965, the Mexican film industry tanking, Sotomayor teamed Clavillazo with comedians Tin-Tan, Resortes, and "Loco" Valdez in Los Fantasmas burlones, a low-budget grab-bag featuring ultra-cheap ghost effects, old footage from the stars' previous films, and some of the least culturally sensitive musical numbers ever committed to film. And then, despite not the slightest hint of decline in Espino's comic gusto, he practically vanished from the screen, making only rare, fleeting appearances until his retirement in 1984. For years, Espino gave his performances everything he had and then some. Perhaps he simply wore himself out. Antonio Espino died of a heart attack in Mexico City in 1993 at the age of 83. He deserves to be better known.

I've seen eleven of Clavillazo's features and only one, The Phantom of the Red House (1956), has ever been dubbed into English (as a part of K. Gordon Murray's World of Terror package). None that I know of have ever been subtitled, something that's only slightly less true of Cantinflas's much better-known output. Of the lot, El Castillo de los monstruos is, in my opinion, the best showcase of Espino's abilities as a comic. I've included three scenes from it along with a fourth from Espino's very impressive 1958 Eastmancolor fantasy Aladino y la lámpara maravillosa. Either would have been hits on American TV or as kiddie matinee features back in the early 60s had they been dubbed. I have to assume that K. Gordon Murray couldn't secure American distribution rights to these because they're right up his alley.

In El Castillo de los monstruos excerpt #1, town undertaker Clavillazo has allowed Evangelina Elizondo the use of his humble apartment and must find lodging in the local boarding house. Unfortunately, the son of the boarding house's owner is a dangerous madman. ¡Loco!

In excerpt #2, Clavillazo serenades Elizondo with the help of a transistor radio. Even without subtitles, this is a nice scene.

Excerpt #3: In this sequence, Clavillazo finally comes face-to-mask with the monsters which include the great German Robles, star of El Vampiro (1957) and
El Ataúd del Vampiro (1958), as Count Lavud, the Mexican equivalent of getting Lugosi to reprise his role as Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Poor Evangelina has been hypnotized by the mad doctor into believing she's "Galatea".

This excerpt from
Aladino y la lámpara maravillosa is pretty much self-explanatory.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Goodness! A Ghost

Harry Langdon didn't spend the 1940s exclusively at Columbia. Aside from headlining in the occasional feature at PRC and Monogram, Harry also wrote and starred in this lone, utterly bizarre, short for RKO. Goodness! A Ghost, released March 8th, 1940, is quite unlike his cookie-cutter Columbias in that a) it has a sizable effects budget and b) it's more or less incoherent. Especially at the beginning, Harry's personality is as winning here as ever, perhaps more so than in the shorts he was appearing in for Jules White, but his story is a rambling, disjointed mess. It actually contains enough decent ideas for two or even three shorts, but they simply don't come together. Is Goodness! A Ghost about a bumbling stagehand who's waiting for his big break as an actor? Or is it about a man whose life is being comically manipulated by the ghost of his grandfather? Or is it all about miniature crime-fighting ghosts flying around in model airplanes? I refuse to accept that it's all three.

Part 1

Part 2

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Monday, May 07, 2007

"Never a help! Always a hinderance!"

In answer to Kevin's C&McC post, for the next few weeks I'm going to post examples of the good, bad, transcendent, and just plain bizarre from Bobby and Paul's series for Radio Pictures. I'm starting things off with The Iceman's Ball, which definitely, for me, falls into the "transcendent" category. The Iceman's Ball was released by RKO on August 12th, 1932, and is the earliest Clark and McCullough short I've seen so far. Like most of the C&McC's that Mark Sandrich directed, it stands in contrast to the later Ben Holmes-helmed shorts in that its story is decidedly straightforward and Bobby and Paul are pretty much allowed to shoulder the short's weirdness on their own. No bagpipe-playing pigs here! Instead, we're presented with a Clark and McCullough who carve their own bizarre path through a fairly recognizable Jazz Age world. And they didn't get better support later on than they do here; we have Jimmy Finlayson doing his takes to the camera, Fred Kelsey as a cop (what else?), and Vernon Dent as a heavy (what else?). Goldwyn Girl Shirley Chambers plays Dorothy Lee to C&McC's W&W, and a very young Walter Brennan rounds out the cast in a thankless minor role. Anarchist, licentious, and thoroughly anti-authoritarian, The Iceman's Ball is an exhilarating example of pre-Code comedy and "Exhibit A" for the argument that Clark and McCullough could have handled features with flair. Bobby: "It's women like you who make men like me make women like you make men like me!"

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

New and Improved!

Folks and people, I'd like to draw your attention to a few new features here at The Third Banana, some of which you may or may not have even noticed yet or not. First, I've added labels to all 157 posts and will continue to add them from now on. As far as names are concerned, the new labels should make this blog effectively "searchable" (I was surprised by the number of Eddie Cantor posts). I've also added tags for OTR, stage, cinema, and TV. To what end, I really don't know. New feature number two: I had intended since last year to begin featuring public domain shorts and clips here but ran into some technical snags and, frankly, was blissfully unaware of the Great and Glorious YouTube Revolution. Now that I have a better handle on things, I intend to post at least a short a week here for the foreseeable future. Finally, as you'll notice down the sidebar, this blog now features (unobtrusive) advertisements. Please help me to cover the costs involved in bringing you free movies, radio shows, and magazine scans by clicking on some of the ads now and again (turns out I've been linking to some of these advertisers here for months anyway). Every little bit helps!

Meanwhile, enjoy this beautiful two-page spread from the January, 1945 issue of Tune In. This ad for CBS's weekday radio lineup has some wonderful Herschfeld art (no hidden NINAs yet; she wouldn't be born until later that year) and some offhandedly callous comments about some beloved comedians. RE: Burns and Allen: "It may seem strange that they still love each other.." Yeah! Why on earth does George put up with that idiot?? And adding an (?) after "Durante's brain" just strikes me as downright cruel.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

"Say! You're not Wheeler and Woolsey, those two funny fellows in pictures?"

1934. A cute bit with Bert and Bob from one of Paramount's Hollywood on Parade shorts, directed by Louis Lewyn. Sparkling dialogue: Bert: "Where are we going?" Bob: "Where are we going? We're going to our preview, of course!" Bert: "Oh, that's right! The preview of our own picture!" Trivia: director Lewyn was married to Marion Mack, the actress who played the heroine in Buster Keaton's The General (1927). According to the IMDB, Lewyn also has a bit part in The General as "Soldier". I dare anyone to try and find him.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Love and Nighties

by Kevin Kusinitz

It’s no secret that the ringmaster of this site is a major Clark & McCullough aficionado. Although Aaron has freely admitted that C&McC are an acquired taste and boast a less-than-perfect resume, he nonetheless admires the sheer energy and anarchy they put into their work. If they’re playing political advisers, they have no problem slamming a desk drawer into their client’s crotch. Invited to a party under false pretenses, Bobby wrestles a guest to the ground for no good reason. Chaos for the sake of chaos is their M.O.

Or so I gather. The biggest problem with assessing C&McC has been the near-unavailability of their work. Movie fans have had to rely on mavens like Aaron or Leonard Maltin for the lowdown. So when I started burning my way-too vast VHS library to DVD – we’re talking a collection going back over 20 years – I was delighted to discover two C&McC shorts: Love & Hisses and The Gay Nighties. Not having seen them since I originally taped them off PBS in the ‘80s, I couldn’t remember what I thought of them the first go ‘round. So I watched them, along with the short Aaron posted the other day, In a Pig’s Eye. And I still don’t know what to make of them… other than that they possess, well, energy and anarchy. Maybe a little too much of both.

In fact, as I watched Love & Hisses, I recalled a friend’s comment upon watching it with me the first time: “Why are they acting that way? What’s their motivation?” As if they were supposed to huddle with Lee Strasberg between takes. He also had a typical complaint about Bobby Clark: “He’s too much like Groucho.” (I give Bobby a pass on that one – vaudeville was lousy with cigar-smoking, fast-talking comics.) My friend didn’t bother with The Gay Nighties: Clark & McCullough had proven a grave disappointment.

Along with the anarchy, there’s also a predilection, it appears, toward stories that hinge on one, ridiculous plot point – a sleepwalking countess, a guy positively orgasmic over watermelons, a pig addicted to mints. Monte Collins, the guy with the flexible scalp, is a regular in their movies as well. Bobby’s line, “File this for future reference” seems to be a running gag, as does Paul McCullough’s nasal laugh. Which brings up something else. Of the three shorts I’ve seen, Love & Hisses is the only one where McCullough has more than a handful of lines. The other two, where he does little more than chuckle appreciatively at his partner’s jokes, feature a writing credit by Bobby Clark. Coincidence?

Paul’s laughter during Love & Hisses feels like cues to the audience. Other than one or two risqué bits of dialogue with a maid, the boys seem to be relying on mania alone to justify two reels of film. I understand what one of their directors meant when he said their vibrancy on the soundstage didn’t translate to film. Indeed, I got the feeling that it would’ve played pretty well in a Broadway farce, even with the same material – watching this lunacy live would’ve been literally breathtaking. No wonder heavyweights like George S. Kaufmann and the Gershwins worked with these guys: they sold the material as if working on 200% commission. I just wasn’t sure I was in a buying mood.

So I approached The Gay Nighties with trepidation. Aaron warned me via e-mail that this was one of their weakest shorts. Bobby’s reading of the line “Couldn’t they have used bows and arrows?!” exemplified, he told me, the mediocrity of the whole enterprise. Still, I decided to view it along with my wife and 11 year-old daughter. (The latter is a Laurel & Hardy fan and would appreciate the appearance of James Finlayson.) This proved to be a wise move, because the presence of an audience can shift one’s perception of a comedy. In other words, we laughed. Silly laughter, perhaps, along the lines of I can’t believe that desk-drawer in the crotch bit, but laughter nonetheless. Bobby Clark would’ve understood.

The story – C&McC frame a political rival by trying to photograph him with a woman other than his wife – lends itself to a few more risqué bits, including Bobby actually trying to get in bed with the aforementioned countess. (The wife is always astonished by pre-Code situations like this.) Paul gets to play a pivotal role for a change, dressing up in Bo-Peep drag in order to entice Finlayson. The jokes never stop, the sight gags get more outlandish, so by the time Bobby utters his deathless “bows and arrows” line, my wife, daughter and I didn’t just laugh, but laughed out loud. Like slapping the armrest of the couch loud. My wife even repeated the line, out of the blue, the next day. Take that, Mr. Clark & McCullough fan!

Still, I wonder: is The Gay Nighties the exception to the Clark & McCullough oeuvre? I know it’s unfair to judge a comedy team’s output by just three movies. I mean, imagine someone unfamiliar with Laurel & Hardy watching only Berth Marks, Twice Two and The Big Noise. Luckily for us, several of their movies are for sale at the Columbia Shorts Department. However, considering their hit/miss ratio so far, I think I’m going to wait for them to be posted on YouTube by some rabid fan. And you know who you are.

File that for future reference.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Dinner at eight or tea for two, by me it's always waffles!"

Typical of Clark and McCullough's RKO shorts, In a Pig's Eye (1934) is a game of Mad Libs edited into a situation comedy. Pig and waffle-loving tailors Crotch and Blodgett steal a Scotchman's clothes and are mistaken by an inventor (Bud Jamison) for his Scottish financier, "the Laird of Loch Loo", and his "confidential advisor". At the inventor's home, Crotch and Blodgett's pet pig Ajax, which lives on a diet of milk and peppermint wafers, is accidentally, and rather inevitably, fed one of the inventor's highly explosive "Destructo" wafers. Oh no! Severe bizarreness ensues. Spoiler: the short ends with the pig playing the bagpipes. Love them or hate them, one thing is certain; during the 1930s, no one made weirder comedies than Clark and McCullough. Favorite moment: Ajax, through the miracle of motion picture editing, inexplicably running around and around a doorway, squealing bloody murder. Everyone panics and flees at the sight and I, for one, can't blame them. Second most favorite moment: Monty Collins reading Popeye in the newspaper: "Hee hee hee hee!! "Arf arf arf!""

Part 1

Part 2

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