Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Wrong Miss Wright

In honor of Greg Hilbrich having slashed prices over at The Columbia Shorts Department, I'm posting The Wrong Miss Wright, Columbia's 1937 remake of Charley Chase's 1926 Hal Roach short Crazy Like a Fox. Chase's Columbias have something of a bad reputation which seems mostly based upon the erroneous assumptions that Charley, nearing the end of his life, was losing steam and that Columbia was handling him, as Harry Langdon would later put it, as "an animated suit of clothes". Nothing could be farther from the truth. Chase was not only in incredible form after his departure from Roach, the transition even seems to have energized him. His performance in The Wrong Miss Wright is arguably better than most of his final performances for Roach, which seem, frankly, tired. Columbia's comedy shorts department was also still in its pre-war prime and Chase, considered one of their greatest assets as a seasoned performer/director, was given Grade A treatment.. something he hadn't been receiving at Roach for a very long time. Most of Charley's Columbias show the care and attention given at the time to most of the department's top-flight talents in both their handsome production values and their character-appropriate scripts. But a few sadly indicate the future direction of the department with scripts that mistake frenetic action for comedy and grossly neglect the talents of the featured performer. As the department continued its gradual slide, The Wrong Miss Wright, itself a remake, would become budget-cutting fodder as it was remade twice into vehicles for Vera Vague. But in 1937 that was all yet to come, and in this short both Chase and Columbia were at the top of their forms. The gags for Crazy Like a Fox, in which Charley attempts to squirm his way out of an arranged marriage by feigning insanity, were thoughtfully reworked for sound. I can't think of another comedy that gets so much mileage out of a Punch and Judy swazzle, which I tend to believe was Charley's own inspiration.

Part One

Part Two

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

"... It's no good that way!"

I've said it before but it warrants saying again: Joe Cook was the most likable and versatile comic of the 1930s and it's a pity that his film career was so brief. Cook was tragically debilitated by young-onset Parkinson's, but not before his film career had already petered out with the release of Arizona Mahoney for Paramount in 1936 (which I still have yet to see). Cook, a creature of the stage, apparently had no particular love for film, doing little to pursue a Hollywood career. His real interests outside theater lay in live radio which similarly afforded him a degree of spontaneity that film couldn't provide. But Joe Cook on radio, as skilled with words as he was, was still half of a performer, and listening to transcriptions of Cook's appearances as host of Shell Chateau makes it very apparent that, much like Ed Wynn, he was playing to the studio audience and not the listeners. Cook, who was otherwise very meticulous in his attempts to shore up his legacy as a performer, treated film off-handedly after Rain or Shine, one of the best early talking feature comedies and a record of both his greatest Broadway success and his numerous talents, failed to generate a career in features. His generally funny Educational shorts were treated in much the same way as Clark and McCullough's RKO series; less as a means to an end than a way to publicize himself and pick up some money between theatrical gigs. Cook's entire career is a series of unfortunate "what ifs", not so much a matter of poor management, but of poor timing and missed opportunities. By all rights, he could have started much earlier. A 1925 Educational Kinograms newsreel, embedded below, shows Joe in his vaudeville prime, a masterful juggler and mimic whose personality comes across with full force despite the absence of sound. Cook clearly had the makings of a top-flight silent comedian, but did it ever cross anyone's mind? And if it had, did Joe simply refuse the offer? What if Cook had signed with a studio other than cash-strapped third-tier Columbia to make his feature debut? Would Paramount or Warners have been able to provide Cook the PR support and guidance he needed to make his Hollywood career a success? Misfortune even seems to have dogged his legacy; his estate, including hundreds of radio transcriptions and scrapbooks was scattered to the winds on Ebay in 2003-04, making a comprehensive biography extremely unlikely. Still, I'm hugely grateful for what does exist, and while I must forever remain greedy for more, Cook is still better and more thoroughly represented in film than many other major talents.

Joe Cook appears in the final item in this 1925 Educational newsreel.

Joe completely bamboozles Tom "IPTBI" Howard in this scene from Rain or Shine (1930).

Rain or Shine. A mustard stain on Tom Howard's vest reminds Joe of an important life lesson from his childhood.

The Greatest Man in America! Joe's formidable juggling skills were documented repeatedly, but this is the only footage I've seen of his balancing and wire-walking abilities. Dave Chasen, later of Chasen's Restaurant fame, plays stooge for Joe in this sequence. He's rather like a less-subtle, talking Harpo Marx.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ed's, You Win!

by Geoff Collins

A nasty rumour has been circulating around these parts that our devoted readers couldn't care less about Ed Wynn. Shame!!! Come on, you guys, what's the matter with you? It's not as if we haven't provided the evidence. And besides, here's a bit more:

If you're English, the next few words will make you laugh. I guarantee it.

Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Okay, that's enough. Get up off the floor, put your teeth back in and pull yourselves together. Now let's analyze it. What immediately comes to mind? The most notoriously bad fake Cockney accent in cinema history (purists are welcome to make a case for Harry Watson in A Damsel in Distress. Ohhhhh God, that's dire.). "It'll be all roight, Mary Pappins" - accompanied by a regrettable tendency to break into a knees-up at the slightest provocation. Can I let you into a little secret? Londoners aren't like that! Trust me - I've been having a great time with one of 'em for the last seven years. Mimics have spent the last four decades squeezing the maximum hilarity out of chimney-sweep Bert's haphazard inflections - which is a bit hard on Dick Van Dyke, who must have known about it, because in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, despite having an "English dad" (Lionel Jeffries, in real life a year younger than "his son", Dick), he doesn't bother with it at all and keeps his own American accent all the way through. In the States (I'm guessing here) Dick's appreciated for his fine early-sixties sitcom; but in Britain he's a Third Banana. Not fair! Is there any way we can justify his strangulated performance? Well, let's try.

Mary Poppins is set in 1910s London. Just Imagine [oh no, not that again] if you will, that lurking behind a nearby lamp-post, notebook in hand, is Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins, bemused by the fact that Julie Andrews is in this film instead of his. What would he make of "Bert"? "Hmmmmm....... mother from East London. Father...."

I first saw Mary Poppins when I was eight years old, and I recall being really disappointed because the cartoon sequence was early in the film and (to an eight-year-old) it really dragged after that. Yet there was another high point - when they all go to see Uncle Albert. Let's assume he's Bert's dad's brother; Bert's obviously named after his uncle (as I was named after my uncle Geoff; thank God; my dad is Bill, but his full name is Wilfred). Uncle Albert is eccentric, he's funny, he floats up to the ceiling when he laughs, and he's played by Ed Wynn. I remember my dad whispering to me, in the cinema, "that's Ed Wynn", but then he always liked to point out all the obscure character people (he still does this!). I didn't know who Ed Wynn was, but - ooooohhh! what a star turn this is. Readers: find the DVD and watch it now!

See what I mean? Not only is this Ed's finest five minutes in pictures (all Third Bananas deserve an opportunity like this) but it also provides the obvious answer to why Dick Van Dyke's character is such an odd-voiced hybrid: his uncle's a Jew from Philadelphia!

We've already bemoaned the fact that the Disney organization has a lot to answer for in the case of "Jiminy Cricket" Cliff Edwards. His contribution was vast but they kept him anonymous. On the plus side, Disney definitely looked after Ed Wynn. Starting with his voice-over in Alice in Wonderland (and I can't help wishing that the Mad Hatter looked a bit more like Ed) he was in The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, Babes in Toyland, Mary Poppins (obviously), Those Calloways, That Darn Cat (very funny film; check it out) and The Gnome-Mobile. He's in that small, select group of star comedians (Arthur Askey, Jimmy Durante and Ed) whose sheer longevity gave them two entirely separate periods of movie fame. After the glories of Follow the Leader (more on this one later!) and the disastrous The Chief, there was a long gap, punctuated by one or two good gags in Stage Door Canteen, until the late 1950s. In between, he did exceptionally well on early radio (1933) and early TV (1949-50). The double-act of "Wynn and Keaton", spookily re-creating Buster's movie debut (the molasses routine from The Butcher Boy) for Buster's TV debut (December 1949), is easily the equal of "Chaplin and Keaton" in Limelight. Sublime, superb, perfect comedy.

I haven't said much about Ed's character. Tall, balding, bespectacled, giggly, fond of ridiculous hats, props and costumes, he was endearingly silly. That's it, really; he was a middle-aged Silly Man. Offstage Ed was morose and depressed with a tendency towards alcoholism, which led to some bad decisions, such as turning down the title role in The Wizard of Oz (yes, we all know that Frank Morgan is perfect, but....and here's the double whammy: Bill Fields turned it down too). Ed's underlying sadness is always apparent in his work but it's never an issue as it all adds to his vulnerability and warmth. His age didn't matter. He didn't need to be handsome; he looked the same in Follow the Leader as he did in Stage Door Canteen, and in his 1950 TV shows. He improved with age, so by the time of Mary Poppins he was about the most lovable comedian on the planet; and it showed.

We can only hope that by this time, Ed was as happy on the inside as he looked on the outside. After sixty years devoted to the laughter of others, he deserved it.

We can also hope that Aaron will now provide some evidence, in order to bring you, our readers, the Who Cares About Ed Wynn Society, out of your apathetic state. Never forget this: our Third Bananas spent their entire lives making the world a funnier place; and we're doing our best to prove this. Ed Wynn, bless him, always Did His Best. Enjoy his work whenever you can find it.

How's this, Geoff? Recorded through a telescope off the two-inch screen of a Baird mechanical television with a coal-powered camcorder, I'm proud to present the first nine minutes of Ed's 1930 talking debut, Follow the Leader. That's the aforementioned Lou Holtz as Sam Platz. Follow the Leader was, I believe, shot side-by-side with Animal Crackers at Paramount's Astoria Long Island studio. The opening titles even share Animal Crackers' art deco styling and wonderful jazz violin. -A

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Olsen and Johnson at Republic

by Paul Castiglia

I recently got the two films that Olsen & Johnson made for Republic in the mid 1930s, Country Gentlemen and All Over Town on DVD. These films were made after their initial stint in movies at Warner Brothers, where they made a few films trying to "find their feet" as movie comedians (having already conquered the stage); and made before their legendary and innovative Universal classics like Hellzapoppin' and Crazy House, which went on to influence later comedy such as TV's Laugh-In.

The Republic O&J films, while a bit more madcap than Abbott & Costello movies (I've never felt like Lou's character was insane the way I know Chic Johnson's is), are more standard in general from O&J's later fare and to my eyes, they seem to have foreshadowed (and maybe even had a hand in influencing?) the energy of the A&C films of the '40s, especially those where A&C find themselves having to use their wits to con or be conned (Hit the Ice, In Society, Here Come the Co-Eds, The Noose Hangs High). The Republic O&J's really reminded me of those A&C films, despite the over-the-top zany touches.

This isn’t to say that other comedians of the ‘30s didn’t deal with con men and shady gangster types. The Stooges came up against such adversaries a lot, and Laurel and Hardy had their share of run-ins, too. But these encounters were almost always against characters who were exaggerated and played to comic effect, as opposed to being played “realistically,” which would render them believable threats. One notable exception in the 1930s is Laurel and Hardy’s classic Our Relations, featuring some real, unnerving hoods. The Marx Brothers and Wheeler and Woolsey vacillated between antagonists who played it straight and those who were decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but played against the Marx’s level of surrealism and Wheeler and Woolsey’s unbridled lunacy, the “serious” threats rarely registered.

For the most part, the Abbott and Costello canon is loaded with dramatic rather than comical villains (with the exception of some comic relief henchman). In the 1940s, away from Hal Roach Studios and under the aegis of Fox and MGM, Laurel and Hardy would start rubbing shoulders with “real” threats; more than likely a result of their new studios’ response to Abbott and Costello’s winning formula.

If you have a chance, watch Olsen & Johnson’s ‘30s films. They are readily available on the cheap from various public domain DVD outfits like Alpha Video. You'll notice that they breeze through these films with the same confidence and energy that Abbott and Costello will display just a few short years later in their initial batch of films, especially Hold That Ghost and Who Done It. They even exchange in some lively double-talk banter that holds up to the best of Abbott and Costello’s verbal exchanges. Consider this transcript of a scene in Country Gentlemen wherein Olsen & Johnson are interrogated by police detectives:
DETECTIVE: Where were you the night of June the 10th?

OLSEN: Out with a beautiful blonde.

DETECTIVE: Where were you on the night of June the 11th?

OLSEN: I was out with a beautiful brunette.

DETECTIVE: Where were you on the night of the 12th?

OLSEN: I was out with a beautiful redhead.

OTHER DETECTIVE: Keep it up Harry, we’re getting somewhere – he’s confessing.

JOHNSON: He’s not confessing, he’s just bragging!
There are other exchanges that are reminiscent of Bud and Lou – watch this scene and imagine Bud doing Ole’s lines and Costello making Chic’s quips, and you’ll know what I mean:

"You wouldn't hit a man with glasses, would ya?"

Despite the odd choice to make Olsen a romantic love interest during Country Gentlemen, there is a lot to like in this short offering. And All Over Town throws in a delightful bonus: perennial Laurel & Hardy nemesis James Finlayson in a major role! As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a scene of Olsen and Johnson sharing a roller coaster ride with a seal that is one of the most laugh-out-load punchlines I’ve ever enjoyed. I won’t give the joke away; you really owe it to yourself to seek these films out. They offer an interesting look into both Olsen and Johnson’s development as well as their influence on (as we learn in their still-to-come classic Crazy House) “Universal’s #1 comedy team.”

This scene from All Over Town affords us a rare glimpse at Chic and Ole's musical skills, the foundation of their original vaudeville act:

This clip from the PBS series Matinee at the Bijou features a mid-50s trailer for a re-issue of Country Gentlemen. That's Rudy Vallee singing the MATB theme:

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hold 'Em Jail

I'm bogged down with work this week so I'm posting a clip that doesn't need much setup. This is the single funniest sequence from Wheeler and Woolsey's 1932 prison movie spoof, Hold 'Em Jail, and one of Edgar Kennedy's all-time greatest moments. Wonderfully, Edgar is already frustrated as hell and doing the "slow burn" before Bert and Bob even enter the scene.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Last Gasp from RKO

Another bottom-of-the-barrel goody, this time from RKO. While Columbia was the last man standing by 1957, RKO and Warners continued to produce comedy shorts until 1953 and 1956, respectively. Warners, with deeper pockets and, let's face it, better talent behind the cameras, was producing the best comedy shorts in the market when they finally decided to throw in the towel. The financially hemorrhaging RKO, on the other hand, was producing TV sitcom-ish bill fillers like the Newlyweds series with Robert Hutton and Elizabeth Frazer and shorts starring Gil Lamb. Lamb, an eccentric dancer with extensive stage experience, was an affable if unremarkable comic. Lanky, clownish, and rubbery, he seems as though he'd be better suited to character roles than headlining, especially in shorts as tired and by-the-book as this one. Lost in a Turkish Bath was the third to last original 2-reel comedy that RKO would release, although they would continue to reissue older and better titles until they closed shop in 1957. Hal Yates had been directing high-quality comedy shorts, primarily the Edgar Kennedy series, for RKO since 1944, but he's on autopilot here. Watch for George Givot, sans Greek accent, in his final appearance in a 2-reel comedy.

Part One

Part Two

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Laff Along with Lucifer!

The first official Jules White/Satan co-production, Kids Will be Kids, was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences in 1954, most cruelly just weeks before Christmas. Thousands were left maimed by the experience, with the mildest of aftereffects being severe stomach cramps and vomiting. To be fair, people had been warned. White had announced his on again/off again partnership with the Lord of Darkness many years previously when Satan began contributing gag material to numerous Three Stooges shorts (most notably the delightful Climbing Spike In the Eye gag from They Stooge to Conga (1943)). By the early 1950s, the uncredited Lucifer had begun sharing production duties on several Columbia comedy series and, at least confidentially, took full credit for the 1957-59 Stooge shorts with Joe Besser. But Kids Will be Kids stands alone as Beelzebub's finest hour at Columbia, featuring as it does the triple whammy of shockingly untalented child performers, a wretched script, and dogs being yanked around by wires. In its own shameful and diabolical way, the film is a masterpiece. Scientists have determined that there is no three second stretch of Kids Will be Kids that does not induce profound pain and scarring. Jules White's technique of having each child awkwardly repeat verbatim his own read of each and every line was painstakingly developed over many years to achieve maximum injury. Can your heart stand the shocking facts about... KIDS WILL BE KIDS???

Part One

Part Two

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Monday, July 02, 2007

The Lou Holtz Laugh Club

Lou Holtz is one of those "footnote" kind of comics; not exactly unique, far from brilliant.. Simply good enough to get noticed, make a nice living, and work with some of the top talents of his day. Lou's shtick was Yiddish dialect humor and telling funny stories. He ran hot and cold, capable of raising up a few belly laughs at his best and downright grating at his worst. His easy, conversational style and borderline blue humor made him a Catskills mainstay for decades. He was also a shameless gag recycler. In the 1940s, author Robert Bloch happened to meet Holtz and asked him about the source of his material.
In response he summoned his dresser, who was a mute, and asked him for "the book." The dresser nodded and pulled a small black notebook from his jacket-pocket, handing it to Mr. Holtz.

The comic held up the little black notebook and nodded.

"Here it is," he said. "My material."

"For this show?" I asked.

"For all my shows," Holtz responded." Including the radio programs, the revues, the nightclub acts. Over the years I've used maybe fifty, sixty stories. What more do I need?"
Lou Holtz shared the stage with Ed Wynn in Manhattan Mary as the smooth-talking agent Sam Platz and was on hand when Paramount's Astoria studios on Long Island filmed the musical as Follow the Leader in 1930. Between a couple of editions of George White's Scandals and a starring role in You Said It, a 1931 college-themed musical comedy that played for 192 performances, this was Holtz's peak both as a comic on Broadway and in film. In 1934, he was one of the first comics to appear in Columbia's Musical Novelties, the studio's first "official" two-reel comedies, doing his dialect shtick in School for Romance and When Do We Eat?. These two shorts marked the end of Lou Holtz's film career, although he's one of an endless number of writers who contributed gag material to MGM's bloated Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Holtz's storytelling abilities were put to their most effective use on radio where he most notably clowned for Rudy Vallee through the 1930s. At some point in the early 50s, Holtz starred in a syndicated series entitled The Lou Holtz Laugh Club, a daily series of five-minute programs (3:30 without the ads) that featured Lou, "America's favorite storyteller", as "the chairman of the Laugh Club". The format was effective and simple; the show opened with a one-liner followed by a bit of crosstalk between Holtz and his Southern-accented assistant "Ginger", a story, and a final bit of crosstalk with Ginger. Lou would then "adjourn the meeting" with the whack of a gavel. The shows were recorded before an audience of perhaps ten or fifteen people who, only rarely, seem not to be forcing their guffaws. The Lou Holtz Laugh Club was syndicated by Laffaday, Inc., which I have to assume was Holtz's own enterprise, and I can't imagine he didn't make a healthy return on this little program. I've uploaded a zip file containing 68 episodes, all with excellent sound, to this link. Any information as to the identity of "Ginger" would be greatly appreciated, you-all.

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