Friday, June 29, 2007

"'Morning, Mr. Tonks! How's the foot?"

I've saved the best for last. The Great Fire Pole Sequence from Where's That Fire? (1940), Will Hay's sixth and final film with stooges Moffatt and Marriott, is one of the greatest "accumulative chaos" sequences in comedy film history, easily on a par with the Stateroom Scene from A Night At the Opera (and outshining all of the knock-off sequences in the Marx features that followed). It is, in my opinion, Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott's finest hour. Unlike the Marxes, Hay & Co. aren't creating chaos for the sake of chaos, but the trio's bullheadedness and incompetence bring about very similar results. Captain Viking (Hay) and firemen Albert and Harbottle have been ordered by the town council of Bishop's Wallop to shape up and modernize their tumbledown fire station after their blundering allowed the Town Hall to burn to the ground. To this end, Viking decides to install a fire pole, but the twenty-foot pole needs to be turned around so that it can stand on its "thick end", which means that Viking, Albert, and Harbottle will first have to bring it out into the street. Director Marcel Varnel handles this sequence with amazing confidence, covering it with a spectacular variety of camera angles and allowing the laughs to build for more than eleven minutes before reaching the payoff. And not only do Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott each get plenty of their own character gags, the sequence is also peppered with lots of other little character studies; the useless cop and his pad ("Now then! What's going on here?"), Charles Hawtrey's know-it-all schoolboy, put-upon Mr. Tonks with his broken foot, and Wilson Coleman's wonderfully oblivious doctor ("Hello, hello? What's this? New wireless aerial?"). Unfortunately for the structural integrity of Where's That Fire?, The Great Fire Pole Sequence (which could stand alone as a short) comes smack-dab at the mid-point and is so spectacular that the remainder of the film, especially the climax, pales in comparison.

Part One

Part Two

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Oh, Mr. Porter!

Easily the most famous of Will Hay's features and one of the all-time great British comedies, Oh, Mr. Porter! is so well-known that I considered skipping it here. But I can't; it's simply too good, and you never know.. this is probably new to someone. In the 1937 film that established the pattern for (most of) the rest of the Hay/Moffatt/Marriott pictures, Hay stars as William Porter, a railway wheel-tapper who has, thanks to relatives in high places, been elevated to the position of station master for the tiny Irish town of Buggleskelly. That he's hardly qualified is considered of little importance as he's expected to last no longer than any of the town's previous station masters, who apparently have had a tendency to go mad. Porter immediately finds himself saddled with the corrupt and shiftless Harbottle and Albert, his deputy station master and porter respectively, who resist any and all efforts to make the dilapidated station run professionally as they've been making an easy living by stealing deliveries off the trains. I had created a few clips of my own from the film, but found that there were much cleaner and sharper versions already on YouTube so I'm linking to those instead.

Porter meets Harbottle and Albert. "Next train's gone!"

Another great twisted-logic routine from Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Ask A Policeman

As promised, here is the first of a series of excerpts from the films of Will Hay, easily the greatest comedian of British film's Golden Age. We've already written at length about Hay and his stooges Moffatt and Marriott, so I won't elaborate here other than to give you a brief setup for the clip below. Ask A Policeman, directed by Marcel Varnel, was released August 28th, 1939 and was the fifth feature to team Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott. The story takes place in the tiny coastal village of Turnbotham Round which has just drawn media attention to itself for its record of seemingly having no crime whatsoever. The truth is that the village is positively crime-ridden, but its police force is so lazy and corrupt that they haven't been bothered to make an arrest in ten years. Unfortunately for Sergeant Dudfoot and Constables Albert and Harbottle, the town now appears to be so peaceful that their own jobs have been declared redundant and are set for the chop. Their only hope to save their careers (and all the inherent perks) is to drum up some crime and fast! In the following clip, Dudfoot, Albert, and Harbottle have set up a speed trap and make a typical botch of it. My apologies for the dark print.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Just Imagine!

by Geoff Collins

Are you sitting comfortably? Let me tell you a tale. Long, long ago, when I first became interested in old movies, I often encountered references to Just Imagine, a 1930 DeSylva, Brown and Henderson sci-fi musical-comedy taking place "fifty years in the future" i.e. in 1980. Photographic evidence all pointed to the indisputable fact that the art direction and set designs were astonishing, easily the equal of the Flash Gordon serials of a few years later: space travel, video phones, food pills - and a fantastic New York skyline obviously inspired by Metropolis. Yet despite my enthusiasm, deep down I felt that I'd never get to see this epic; it was considered one of the Great Lost Films. The real 1980 came and went; so did 1990, 2000, 2005.... Yet finally, after all these years, the good news is: it isn't lost - and I've seen it. The bad news is: it isn't great.

There's inevitably a letdown with the recovery of a Lost Classic. ("Oh - is that it?") Yet in 1930 DeSylva, Brown and Henderson could seemingly do no wrong. They were the kings of Broadway's Golden Age: Follow Thru, Good News, Hold Everything, all crammed with snappy hit songs. They even provided the stodgy old Fox studios with a bright, fresh, original movie musical, Sunny Side Up; and so, inevitably, a follow-up was needed. Dipping into Fritz Lang territory, they came up with a science-fiction comedy about a dope who's struck by lightning in 1930 and revived in 1980 - a perfect part for an appealing Broadway/Hollywood Top Banana ("By the looks of this guy, he was dead even when he was alive!") Just Imagine who could have played this role, and how they would have handled it: Wynn, Keaton, Cantor, Healy, Wheeler, Lahr, Cook, Clark, Langdon..... Jolson.... Stop! It's breaking my heart - for this was the Fox Film Corporation, and who was their Top Lemon in 1930? Yumpin' yiminy - the phony Swede, El Brendel.

It's quite appropriate that when the heads of this most convention-bound studio decided to make an entirely unconventional movie, they picked a star comedian with the narrowest range in the world. We really have to do a huge Just Imagine in order to imagine just how highly regarded Brendel was in 1930. At least he was consistent; he stuck with that annoying fake-Swedish characterization for years, and he was evidently very successful with it. But as we all know, there's Comedy For Now, and there's Comedy For Ever. For a start, we never believe he's a real person, not for one second. As soon as he's been brought back to life after fifty years, he launches into inane, thudding one-liners; it doesn't seem to occur to this buffoon that he's skipped fifty years and that as a consequence his family are probably all dead - not until right at the end, when he's reunited with his ancient son. After the briefest of pauses, while the truth dawns on him, all he can say is "Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy!" A cheap laugh to end this dreary picture.

And ohhhh God, is it dreary. Fox did Adventurous less adventurously than anyone else. The casting could hardly be worse. The British leading man was born Reginald Dandy, and appropriately he chose the much duller name John Garrick for his musical-comedy stage career, which was quite distinguished - although you'd never guess it from his singing. (Aaron, spot-on as usual, calls it gassy mewling. That's settled it; for me, John Garrick will always be Gassy Mewling. And Eddie Cantor will always be Whiny Bitch - but that's another story.) One of his numbers, a piece of horrendous drivel about an old-fashioned girl, is belted out straight-to-camera. You sit transfixed by the awful noise and his scary dead-eyed stare, as you wait patiently for the song, or your life, to end. Either of those would do. What did his girlfriend see in this drip? Maybe she's British as well. Yes, she is; it's Maureen O'Sullivan. There must have been a machine in this "1980" that sucked all the charisma out of the British. Don't ask me how it worked! Maureen's lovely in A Day At the Races, and indeed she's lovely here; but she had a long way to go. Her love scenes with Garrick are wooden, gloomy and interminable.

Speaking of the Marxes, Just Imagine's second-lead is also Room Service's second-lead, Frank Albertson. Unfortunately he's a total dead loss, blander than the blandest Haley. The sole bright spot in this cast of clodhoppers is Albertson's girlfriend Marjorie White, a sassy, funny little blonde sexpot. There's a definite attempt here to duplicate the chemistry of sarcastic wimp Jack Haley and zippy tornado Zelma O'Neal in Follow Thru, even to the extent of giving White and Albertson a "comedy song". And what did the collective genius of DS, B & H come up with? "Never Swat a Fly". Marjorie gives it her best shot, and what an attack she has, but phew.... "Button Up Your Overcoat" it ain't.

Oh, those songs, those dopey, inept Fox musical numbers. They are grim. Did the writers think that this was what popular music would be like in 1980? You can forgive them for not predicting rock, but some jazz wouldn't go amiss. This movie has even less jazz than King of Jazz, and that's saying something.

However, just when you think it couldn't get any worse, it actually gets better. Following the fatuous "Fly" duet by Albertson (a ninny) and White (sexy!), El Brendel, out of nowhere, provides a recitation: "The Romance of Elmer Stremmingway". Our trepidation slowly turns to pleasure; for this is a Star Turn. For once in this movie El is charming and funny, and the mystery is solved as to why he was a vaudeville headliner. It's the same with Jolson, Sid Field, Max Miller: they were the Real Thing, but the camera rarely caught it. Here, it does. "Now, folks," he announces, "I'm gonna sing a little song like I sang in vaudeville, vay back in 1930!" and it's clear that El's character in the movie was a stand-up comedian. Suddenly we've moved from Musical Comedy to Social History, as El gives us an "authentic" vaudeville routine (not too authentic, as DS, B & H wrote it for the film, but it'll suffice) performed in front of a real audience. It's a musical monologue about innocent farmhand Elmer (Stremingway, not Brendel), his rocky romance with Fanny Lee, and the disastrous intervention of Victorian villain Silas Pratt. Each time a different character is mentioned, El changes hats with lightning speed. There are some great lines ("I von't give up my Fanny - you'll never be a Pratt!") and it all accelerates into a maelstrom of hat-changing, not helped by the fact that the Fanny hat's fake curls obscure his vision, and the Silas hat has a clip-on Wicked Moustache which catches him under the nose. When Silas' would-be bigamy is exposed, El "gets rid of him" by knocking his hat off sideways with a sort of deadpan nonchalance. Naturally there's a happy ending and the scene fades out on much-deserved applause; three minutes of joy amidst ninety minutes of dross. El redeems himself but he can't redeem this movie.

A classic hat-changing routine? Sounds familiar? Despite the efforts of O'Sullivan and Garrick to convince you otherwise, we Brits do have a sense of humour, and a vast treasure trove of Nice Tasty Comedy (as Arthur Askey called it). Although we've rarely seen El's Elmer recitation due to its long-term unavailability, we cherish a similar routine frequently performed by that huge, lumbering "bad magician" Tommy Cooper (1921-84). Its authorship is disputed: Tommy's biographer John Fisher traces it back to the early 1950s, a joint effort written by Freddie Sadler and Val Andrews with fuller origins in the late-Victorian "chapeaugraphy" of Felicien Trewey. (Fuller Origins? What a great act that was!) Just Imagine isn't mentioned, but Tommy was a notorious magpie for comedy material. It's an almost identical structure, a corny recitation involving hat-changes for all the characters, and it all speeds up into a hilarious, confusing mess.

But Tommy's version adds some surreal touches. During a rehearsal, he genuinely lost his place, went back to the beginning and quickly mumbled his way back through the first few lines, for his own benefit, using all the hats, until he'd worked out where he was in the routine. He had to be persuaded to include this in the finished version; he genuinely didn't realize how funny it was. He also adds totally irrelevant hats: ("a little schoolboy!") and a huge, furry rabbit-eared thing ("I don't know who that is!") This is the difference between the two interpretations: El's version is slick and polished, an almost-too-perfect performance from this supposedly-dim Swede; and he's enjoying himself immensely. Tommy's version is also slick but with an added dimension, the terrified desperation of the amateur performer when things start to go wrong. Of course Tommy was no amateur - all those cock-ups were flawlessly timed and rehearsed - but he always came across as a man about to face a firing squad.

Tommy's "Hats" routine is rightly accepted as a classic in these 'ere parts, and Tommy himself has long been acknowledged as a wonderfully unique comedian. El Brendel is remembered, if at all, as a minor dialect comic who was funny in 1930 but isn't now, the man who intruded, irritatingly, on the last sad shorts of Harry Langdon. (Don't ever forget, that was Columbia's fault, not El Brendel's. When your career's slipped that much, you'll take anything.) At least once, in Just Imagine, El gives us a glimpse of why he was a Top Banana then, and also why he's a Third Banana now. Maybe more than once; In Delicious, yet another Fox retread of Sunny Side Up, he performs a song especially written for him by (prepare to be astounded) the Gershwins. Don't get too excited; it's called "Blah Blah Blah".

It's not a perfect world, and Just Imagine is far from perfect; but for a few minutes El Brendel almost makes us forgive him for his Columbias - almost.

Just Imagine; Annoying, occasionally striking, dull but somehow endlessly fascinating so you'll always want to sit through it all just one more time. It should have been made by Paramount, with Ed Wynn, Jack Haley, Zelma O'Neal.... but it's not a perfect world.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Follow the Flit

While Okay for Sound may not be the funniest Crazy Gang feature, their 1937 screen debut (as a unit) does afford us this nearly eight minute introductory stretch that manages to sum up almost all of the Gang's strengths and weaknesses. Not surprisingly, Flanagan and Allen completely dominate this clip, performing Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr's "Free", with Nervo and Knox coming in a close second and Naughton and Gold pulling up the (baggy) rear. Of Nervo and Knox, it's the lisping, sniffling, personable Teddy Knox who draws my attention; in this footage he redefines low comedy with his habit of wiping his nose and then rubbing his hand off on the clothes of the person standing next to him. The acrobatic Jimmy Nervo, however, was the senior partner of the act and was considered by most to be the true heart of the Gang, although I have to admit he doesn't exactly wow me in the Gang pictures (to be fair, he may be much funnier in his own starring vehicles, and it has been said that the entire Gang was far funnier live). Naughton and Gold are the likable yet interchangeable Glaswegan clowns who handle the bulk of the Gang's rough(er) slapstick. Far from brilliant and largely seen as the Gang's shortest and weakest links, Naughton and Gold are, however, said to have had a knockabout "paperhangers" routine that was one of the great Music Hall acts of the oughts and teens. The Crazy Gang has often been clumsily compared to the Marx Brothers by lazy commentators who feel the need to liken the Gang to something Americans might be familiar with, but as you can see in this clip there's no similarity beyond their being a gaggle of comics. I'd even be hard-pressed to call the Gang at team at all. Every now and then there will be a little bit of comedy partner-swapping, but usually the Gang splits at intervals into its respective double-acts for individual turns, primarily because an agreement between the acts specified that each receive equal screen time. Whatever they were, though, the Crazy Gang was funny in a wonderfully self-indulgent way; the punny movie titles sequence in this clip is a testament to that ("Follow the Flit", indeed!). I feel compelled to point out that Albert, the page boy on the bicycle, is played by Graham Moffatt, the younger, rounder half of Moffatt and Marriott, Will Hay's erstwhile stooges. More on them later, Bananaphiles.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's Stupendious! It's Colossal!!

If you've ever wondered what attending a Broadway musical comedy in the 1930s was actually like, The Jumbo Fire Chief Program is probably as close as you'll ever get. In 1935, Billy Rose leased the financially failing 5,200 seat New York Hippodrome for his circus-cum-musical comedy extravaganza Jumbo starring Jimmy Durante. As a way to allay the enormous costs of the production as well as drum up publicity for a show that hadn't yet opened, Rose signed a deal with Texaco to produce a radio serial based on the play that would be broadcast each week live "from the sawdust ring of the New York Hippodrome" and starring all of the principals, right down to the show's numerous specialty acts (because there's nothing like listening to a trapeze act over the radio). The Jumbo Fire Chief Program, which premiered on October 29th, 1935, was a replacement for Ed Wynn's recently cancelled Texaco show and the contrast was stark. Instead of two performers cracking vaudeville gags, a small band, and a close-harmony quartet, the new program was simply the biggest thing on radio, ever, with a budget of $15,000 per episode, a cast of twenty-two, the 35-piece Adolphe Deutch Orchestra, Henderson's 32-voice Singing Razorbacks, the seventeen Allen K. Foster showgirls, and Big Rosie, "Jumbo" herself. Even today, the show manages to capture some of the wonder that still surrounded the medium in 1935; a full 30 minute musical comedy, with dialogue by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and a Rodgers and Hart score, broadcast live from New York to your home every Tuesday night at 9:30. Cutting somewhat into the ambiance was the initial insistence on the part of the producers that the audience of 4,500 neither applaud nor laugh so that the listeners "may better enjoy the program". This meaningless rule happily fell by the wayside and the audience was at least allowed to laugh from the second broadcast onward, probably to Durante's great relief. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, between the live animal acts, trapeze artists, 35-foot puppets, and the Great Depression, Jumbo opened in the red and continued to leak money until it closed six months later. The Jumbo Fire Chief Program, with its low ratings (beaten by far by Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny) and absurd overhead, vanished from the air on January 14, 1936, three months before the close of Rose's super-show. I've uploaded a zip file containing all twelve episodes to this link; that's six free hours of pure vintage Schnozzle goodness! You can thank me by clicking on some of the Terribly Inconspicuous Ads in the sidebar.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Willie, West, and McGinty

Greg Hilbrich of The Columbia Shorts Department drew my attention this week to these incredible YouTube clips of the vaudeville team of Willie, West and McGinty, "The Comedy Builders". I had only read about them prior to seeing this footage and was completely ignorant of the fact that they had committed their long-running slapstick act to film. And not just once, either; at least three times between 1930 and 1937, not counting their numerous television appearances during the 1950s. Professional clown Pat Cashin, the poster of these videos, writes that Walt Disney would take his staff "to go and study their act for performance, timing and structure", something that will become glaringly clear once you watch the team in action. Their "incompetent construction workers" routine clearly formed the inspiration for many of those Mickey/Donald/Goofy shorts of the late 30s in which the trio clumsily attempts to load a moving van, clean a clocktower, etc... and all of those shorts are about 1/10th as funny as Willie, West, and McGinty (and they would have to be: who cares if an animated character could pull off these physical gags? That the team is flesh-and-blood is what makes the gags tick!).

Clip one: Willie, West, and McGinty in Plastered, their 1930 screen debut for Paramount, directed by Norman Taurog (who more or less turned the camera on and walked away).

Clip two: Willie, West, and McGinty on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951. The same act, but take a look at how much some of the gags have improved over time. Incidentally, Bobby Clark was the host of this particular episode so, yes, Virginia, at least one of Bobby's Colgate shows exists! Hallelujiah!

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday Ends n' Odds

Foistly, a new Biffle and Shooster comedy short written by our pal Unca' Nick Santa Maria! As an exhibitor might have written in a trade journal in 1934, "Renting and Raving is a real honey of a picture. All my patrons really go for the antics of these two nuts. Take my advice and book this one! Hot dog!".

Secondly, Hook, Line, and Sinker (1930) starring Wheeler and Woolsey (and a pre-personality Hugh Herbert) has finally reared its head over at And it's a nice print, too.. not the blurry, washed-out TV print with the re-shot titles and the muddy audio that has been making the rounds on bargain DVDs. You can download it in five different flavors, 3.7 GB being more than adequate for DVD. Hopefully this means that Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) isn't far behind! And while I'm at it, I should also mention that Harold Lloyd's swansong The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is now available at, too! I'm not much of a fan of Harold's last picture, but the first ten to fifteen minutes are undeniably brilliant and promise a movie that Sturges couldn't deliver.

Thoidly, also from comes this silent, battered, Dutch-subtitled print of Gum Shoes (1935) starring Monty Collins and Tom Kennedy. If you've never seen it with sound (and if you can't read Dutch), you may be surprised to discover how easily you can follow the plot, a testament to Columbia's strict adherence to the forms and formulas of silent slapstick comedy (not to mention their habit of recycling gags and scripts).

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Florodora Boys

The "Florodora Boys" number from Warner Brothers' 1929 all-star extravaganza The Show of Shows is more remarkable for who is in it rather than for any inherent entertainment value it may have.. which apparently holds true for most of the film. The number is a reference to the musical Florodora which opened in 1899 at the Lyric in London before running on Broadway for 505 performances at the New York and the Casino between 1900 and 1902. It was revived three times, the last being a Schubert production of 1920. For reasons that are beyond me, the question of what happened to the original Florodora Boys became a common pop reference for years. A 1938 Screen Gems cartoon, Midnight Frolics, features the ghosts of the original Florodora Boys. This number is introduced by Frank Fay doing his self-depreciating shtick that probably played better in person than it does in this film. I personally think he's rather funny in small doses, but he's omnipresent in The Show of Shows. The Warners clearly felt they had a find in Frank. The number itself opens with a chorus line consisting of Alice Day, Lila Lee, Myrna Loy, Patsy Ruth Miller, Marian Nixon, and Sally O'Neil who really do nothing more than chant and look pretty (again, the novelty was in the lineup and frilly Edwardian costumes). Ben Turpin, Heine Conklin, Lupino Lane, Bert Roach, Lloyd Hamilton, and someone else I have yet to identify (he plays the plumber.. Would you help me out here, folks?) then take the stage and each gets a stanza and a little bit of business; Turpin does his forward somersault, Lane does his jackknife split, Conklin stares blankly, etc.. Lupino Lane is particularly interesting here as he crosses back over the line from silent slapstick to the world of musical comedy from which he originally came (and in which he would eventually find his greatest success, largely as the originator of "The Lambeth Walk").

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Singing in the Bathtub

Three weeks ago, a little thrift store around the corner from my house had a huge sidewalk sale. In order to clear out merchandise that wasn't moving, they were selling cassettes, LPs, and VHS tapes by the bag. Twenty-five cents a bag! Among the discarded copies of Home Alone II and National Lampoon's European Vacation were dozens and dozens of VHS tapes with Brother P-Touch labels. Each was meticulously numbered (at least up to 543!) and housed in a translucent clamshell case, and a cursory glance at the titles told me immediately that these were from the collection of a TCM/AMC addict: Varsity Show, A Song to Remember, Nancy Goes to Rio, Glorifying the American Girl, The Bamboo Blonde, Ali Baba Goes to Town, Maytime, Look for the Silver Lining, and on and on. Needless to say, I loaded the trunk of my car with these tapes. One title in particular caught my eye immediately. The Show of Shows (1929) was Warner Brothers' entry in the revue cycle of the late 20s/early 30s that also included MGM's The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (and 1930). While the Fox and MGM revues place a decided emphasis on Broadway imports (and giving silent stars their last shots at salvaging their careers), The Show of Shows takes particular pleasure in forcing Broadway and silent stars into close quarters with one another regardless of the results. And certainly no other revue picture features so many silent comedians in their first speaking roles: Lloyd Hamilton, Chester Conklin, Heine Conklin, Lupino Lane, Ben Turpin, Bert Roach, and others. Unfortunately, the tape I purchased only has half of the film on it, cutting off in the middle of the two-strip Technicolor "Chinese Fantasy" number, so I have yet to see John Barrymore's talking debut, the "Bicycle Built for Two" number with Lloyd Hamilton and Chester Conklin, two skits with Frank Fay and Sid Silvers, and other cool stuff (sob). But I can bring you a couple of things this week. First, the incredible "Singing in the Bathtub" number featuring Broadway favorite Winnie Lightner. Winnie was, like Bobby Clark, another stage import whose personality was perhaps a little too outsized for film. She's just as raucous in Gold Dust Gertie (1931) as she is here... and when your performance style makes Olsen and Johnson seem sedate, you really may have crossed a line. Still, when it comes to belting out songs, Lightner is pretty damn incredible (she was known as the "Song-A-Minute Girl") and it's strange that after her Hollywood career fizzled in 1934, she never returned to the stage (to my knowledge). As if the "Singing in the Bathtub" number wasn't peculiar enough what with all the chubby guys in bathing suits and men in drag and the enormous bathtub, out steps silent heavy BULL MONTANA at the end to serenade Winnie! He's dreadful beyond belief, but the novelty of seeing the guy in a tux and singing must have knocked them out of their seats in 1929.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Monty Collins SINGS!

In 1940, stalwart Third Banana Monte/y/ie Collins turned up in a small comic relief role in the exploitation quickie Mad Youth, directed by Melville Shyer. Monty wasn't exactly known for his singing, so seeing him belt out a wonderfully corny tearjerker about "Old Broadway" is a bit of a treat and suggests that the guy had more than a little vaudeville experience. What do you bet the uncredited woman who accompanies him on the piano was his wife?

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who Are Haver and Lee???

Haver and Lee may be the single most obscure comedy team we've ever featured on The Third Banana. As Geoff has pointed out in the past, we don't even know their first names.. and not even "Haver" may be Haver's real surname (he reportedly hosted a radio series entitled The Old Town Hall under the name "Clay Keyes"). Lee, the little guy with the mustache, vibrates with what seems to be decades worth of music hall experience; check out his accomplished tap dancing in clip 2! Bespectacled Haver sounds like an American, but could be a Canadian, and something in his delivery (and the act in general) tells me that he caught Ted Healy's act once or twice. All I can really say about them is that they were one-of-a-kind in pre-War British comedy; aggressive, sharp, and wonderfully surreal. What's remarkable to me about their act is how beautifully it synthesizes American and British comedy influences. Haver is every bit the cynical and acerbic American wiseguy and Lee is a perfect music hall clown, brimming over with physical gags, unexpected reactions, and bad puns. Haver and Lee's scenes in Radio Parade of 1935 are easily the highlights of that picture, which features plenty of better-known, better-regarded performers, Will Hay chief among them. They were still at it by 1940, performing two routines for the Pathe Pictorial that must have been standards for them. Where did they go? Where did they come from?? Who are Haver and Lee???

Clip One: Radio Parade of 1935

Clip Two: Radio Parade of 1935

Clip Three: Pathe Pictorial, 8/8/40

Clip Four: Pathe Pictorial, 9/12/40

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Twin brother to a chicken!!!"

Classic comedy workhorse Edgar Kennedy stars in this 1937 Jam Handy safety short for Chevrolet. In The Other Fellow, poor Edgar finds himself bedeviled by a colorful variety of poor drivers, all played by Edgar Kennedy. "Why, they're in my head! Everywhere!" says Edgar before looking into his rear-view mirror and realizing.. that he's Edgar Kennedy as well! "Well, I'll be a..." mutters Ed, apparently never having seen his own reflection before. Edgar eventually ends up in an altercation with another driver (not played by Edgar Kennedy) after a fender-bender and is quickly hauled away by police as children stand by and laugh at him. "You know we all can improve driving conditions only when we see in ourselves a reflection of the other fellow." the judge tells him. "We won't be so quick to jump on him when we realize that we, ourselves, are the other fellow." On this film's page, commenter "hauber" mentions another Jam Handy safety short entitled Sitting Pretty (1940) that stars Harry Langdon! Does anyone out there know its whereabouts?

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

What is a New Year's Resolution?

Something that goes in one year and out the other! After much deliberation and deep thought.. nearly a full five minutes.. I've decided to declare It Pays to be Ignorant the "official" Third Banana old-time radio series. I've always loved the show, but upon closer inspection I've found it really encompasses the entire Third Banana experience, so to speak. Between Tom Howard, George Shelton, Lulu McConnell and Harry McNaughton, we have our UK contingent (McNaughton), comedienne (McConnell), and comedy team (Shelton and Howard). Between the four we have vaudeville experience (Howard, Shelton, McConnell), burlesque (Shelton and Howard), Broadway (all four), film (all four), and radio (duh). The comedy is low, loud and anarchistic, the medium and format obsolete (in the US), and the cast is like a Mount Rushmore of Third Bananas. I can't think of a more thoroughly Third Banana-ish anything, really. So there you have it. Our first "official" thingamabob.

Created in 1942 by WELI program director Bob Howell, the concept was tailored by Howell's co-worker (and eventual wife) Ruth Howard as a vehicle for her father Tom and his comedy partner George Shelton. IPTBI is primarily a parody of Information, Please and Dr. IQ, taking the "board of experts" from the former and the venerable "Pay that man five silver dollars!" tagline from the latter. Too frequently it's classified as an actual quiz program which it most certainly isn't. The guests invariably win a token amount for "stumping the experts" with such questions as "Who painted Whistler's Mother?", but otherwise it's simply a free-form comedy show. Contemporary critics panned it and predicted it would have a short run (it lasted for a decade). Even today it seems that It Pays to be Ignorant isn't overly liked among OTR aficionados. Despite being a consistent ratings winner, it isn't mentioned once in Arthur Frank Wertheim's otherwise authoritative Radio Comedy. Why the animosity? Unfortunately, IPTBI cannot be classified as an "acquired taste". Either you find wordplay, terrible puns, and general vaudeville patter funny or you don't, and if you don't find one episode of IPTBI funny, you might as well forget the rest. It's either wonderful, addictive fun or less preferable than a root canal. Decide for yourself. has a nice set of 35 shows that you can download here... and just for fun, here's the show's catchy themesong. Below is a two page spread from the October 16th, 1937 Radio Guide featuring Tom Howard's novel (and frugal) nautical-themed basement. At the time, Shelton and Howard were the featured comics on NBC's Sealtest Sunday Night Party. Daughter Ruth can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of page one. Pipes from Tom Howard's collection are fairly common on Ebay.

ADDENDUMB: On April 1st, 1946, a British version of It Pays to be Ignorant, entitled Ignorance Is Bliss, premiered on the BBC Light Programme. The series was apparently a letter-for-letter copy, using the same scripts as the American show (right down to the catchphrases!), and with stand-ins for Howard, McNaughton, McConnell, and Shelton. Regrettably, from the sound of the clip found at the bottom of this page about the show, what it couldn't duplicate was the verve and spirit of spontaneity of the original. It's worth noting that Lulu McConnell's replacement is Gladys Hay, none other than Will Hay's daughter.

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