Monday, August 27, 2007

Rain or Shine Restored!

It was undoubtedly Frank Capra's involvement that led Sony to restore Rain or Shine starring Joe Cook, but the restoration is premiering at the Palace Theatre in Landing, NJ, a few miles from where Joe used to live along Lake Hoptacong. If any of you do manage to attend the September 15th screening, let me know.. and be sure to drop by the Lake Hoptacong Historical Museum while you're there. Its president, Martin Kane, informs me that they have an extensive Joe Cook collection that includes photos, home movies, and even the piano that visitors to Joe's home used to sign (autographs include Babe Ruth, Groucho and Chico, Ginger Rogers and hundreds more).

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

".. a mere chant of the mediocre"

"... your report on the reaction to my life interview doesn't surprise me. i am afraid that it doesn't take much to arouse a torrent of opinions at the hillcrest round table. berle's opinion doesn't bother me. it must be someone else's that he is using secondhand. berle is the moron's messiah - a mere chant of the mediocre - a sorry mime who mistakes gusto and thyroid condition for talent and ability. he has been around for twenty years and has never been first in anything. if he is first in television, either our standards have disappeared or there is something wrong with television."

- Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, July 14, 1949

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

'E Don't 'Arf Make You Larf!

by Geoff Collins

People change as they get older; or do they? It's a theory I'd intended to work on until I recently had another look at Mary Poppins (had to wait until I found a cheapo copy 'cos Disney DVDs are sooooo expensive). Having seen Ed Wynn in (the first reel of) Follow the Leader, Stage Door Canteen, early TV shows and finally, having savoured his uniquely treasurable turn as Uncle Albert in Mary P, it must be said that throughout all of this, in spite of immense personal difficulties (some of them self-inflicted) he remains the same recognisable Ed; silly, cheerful and lovable. It's a tribute to his resilience - or perhaps he didn't let it show until he got home.

Now let's consider the imitable Max Wall - I say imitable 'cos he was a gift to the mimics. We'll let Max introduce himself. Imagine a doleful, craggy face saying this in a resigned sort of way, because it's his job, but with just a hint of smiley, forced enthusiasm: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Wall is the name, standing before you, Max Wall. In the flesh, not a cartoon. You've heard of my grandfather, the Great Wall of China. He was a brick...."

My dad saw Max Wall's stage act in 1940 at the small theatre in Eastchurch aerodrome in Kent. At that point Max, in his early thirties, was a charming stand-up comedian and eccentric dancer, dressed in a sharp suit and "comic" trilby hat. Much of the act still exists in a couple of routines he did for the Pathe newsreel cameras (see - unrelated gags and quickfire impressions (Captain Bligh, useless boxer Jack Doyle - which he does by going "Ow!" and briskly falling down - and, most bizarrely, "a Cocker Spaniel!": fake ears unrolled from under the hat, panting with spaced-out eyes rolling upwards and his tongue hanging out). There's just the slightest hint of danger here - this nice young man could be a maniac - but mostly his outlook is sunny.

Fast forward thirty-five years. On February 18, 1975, it was my turn to see Max Wall; I was fortunate enough to catch his one-man show Aspects of Max Wall at the Garrick Theatre during a night off from Tax Officer training (thank God I didn't pursue this deadly career). Max was a week or two away from sixty-seven; and he was a living gargoyle. It's virtually impossible to catch the essence of this lugubrious genius in print. Few performers have ever bared their souls in public like this man as he exposed all the pain and frustration and heartache and pain involved in being a comedian. The trilby hat was still there; the ingratiating smile was still there, albeit a bit more skeletal and shark-like; but he was drenched in melancholy. We all knew what Max had been through in his private life; he'd survived it, and he could afford to take his time now. A weak little joke which seemed to go surprisingly well gave him exaggerated paroxysms of joy: "Success! Success!" His celebrated eccentric dancing was announced with a dry, understated "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm now going to do the walking-up-and-down bit for you". At another point he tripped over an invisible obstacle on the stage. "A little hole sticking up" he explained and then, with a rueful look, "How desperate can a comedian be???"

How desperate indeed. Much of the first half of his show involved him in a battle of wits with the pit musicians, who were determined to drown out his attempts to sing "Birth of the Blues". (In his autobiography Max cites Dan Leno as an unwitting influence, but a similar zero-tolerance contempt for accompanists is displayed by the very Maxish Billy Merson in another couple of Pathe clips. Explore!) Max's pianist was black-toupeed dance-band legend Monia Liter. In the midst of admonishing him, Max discovered he liked the sound of Monia's unusual name and repeated it, just for his own amusement, with drawn-out adenoidal slowness: "Monia. Monnnn-YA!" It's a rare variation on something he did all his life, this enjoyment of odd sounds for their own sake ("Where's the stool? [Pause. Brief smile.] Stooooollllll!!!")

Despite his over-loud accompaniment, Max succeeded in giving birth to the Blues and exited to tremendous applause. Back he came, after the interval, as The Professor. Professor Wallofski, well known in the field of classical music, and also well known in the field behind the gasworks "but my visits there... get fewer..." The Professor was a postwar creation; he evolved gradually but eventually took over, giving us our defining image of what we think of as "Max Wall": long, black untidy wig with a bald bit in front, short and shapeless dinner jacket, formal shirt and bow tie, flashy waistcoat, black tights, white socks and oversized elastic-sided boots. In Max's "trilby" act you were faintly aware of a monster lurking beneath the surface. With the Professor, the monster was on full display. A beaming smile could suddenly turn ugly as his face underwent a swift gorilla-like transformation into the evil leer of a Mr. Hyde, at which point this hellish creation would attempt to charm a female member of the audience with a repellent, suddenly-Northern-accented "I loov you! Coom 'ere!" There were gasps as well as laughs. Dangerous, dangerous comedy - but he could always rein it back in with "that's about enough of that, I think" or "You weren't frightened, were you? I don't frighten people any more since I 'ad the nut and bolt taken out of me neck!"

The Professor's attempts to play "Raccchhhmaninoff's Prelude", announced via a wide-mouthed toothy gargle a la Leslie Henson, were hampered by the discovery that his arms were of unequal length, a defect which he earnestly endeavored to correct, in profile, so we could see all the varying lengths of arm and sleeve, until of course both arms were much too long, resulting in another scary knuckle-scraping gorilla impression. A beautifully thrown-away moment had him discovering a flea in his sock, slamming the keyboard lid on it and wiping the remains on his leg.

And so on. Lack of space prevents [thank God, I hear you say!] further description of this memorable evening but readers! try and find the documentary movie Max Wall - Funny Man. It's all there. It works well on film and it's an excellent record of the Max most of us remember. But how in the hell did urbane, cheery 1940 Max Wall metamorph into 1975 Max ?

WOMEN WERE MY DOWNFALL, SAYS BANKRUPT MAX WALL. I clearly remember this exact headline from about 1973. Roy Hudd recalls standing next to Max in the urinal. Max didn't speak to Roy; instead he looked down and addressed his own willie: "You... you little devil! You're the cause of all the trouble!"

It all came apart for Max in the mid-fifties. A disastrous marriage, one of those unions that drag on for decades before either party admits it's been disastrous, eventually broke up. Max was elected the Bad Guy by all concerned and he rarely saw his children again. When he did, they were full of contempt for him; they'd been Carefully Taught. Shortly afterwards, Max's friendship with the beauty queen Jennifer Chimes caused him to be vilified by the lower orders of the British press; although this liaison happened after his marriage break-up, it was re-written by gutter journalists as the cause of it. The British public believed every word of it and this Wicked Man disappeared into the waste lands of the Northern working men's clubs. He survived. Barry Cryer saw him facing a terrible onslaught of heckling and verbal abuse; Max waited, calmly, for it to stop, and then he said quietly "You know, this is the most restful part of my day."

Max wasn't the only comedian to go through such living hell. Bill Fields and Buster Keaton both had similar tales to tell, and it changed them too. It's hardly surprising. Believe me, when your own children (a) are misinformed by their perceived "good parent" to such an extent that they hate you, and (b) they haven't got enough insight to realise any of this, the effect on your well-being and self-esteem can be catastrophic. Nobody can survive such an onslaught of venom and injustice and remain unscathed. We've all got a dark side, but it doesn't help when your family deliberately conspires to make it darker.

Bill Fields, a kindly man beneath his belligerent facade, took revenge by exposing the narrow-minded hypocrisy of family life in his sketches and movies, and you know it's his real family getting a well-deserved blasting. Buster and Max, gentler souls, just let it happen. All three hit the bottle, and their comedy became darker. Bill's persona became tougher and more misanthropic; Buster retreated into an even deeper melancholy. Max Wall became a Grotesque.

Rarely has such a bleak outlook been presented on the British Variety stage; and as Max's comedy became bleaker, the Miracle happened. In the correspondingly bleak early 1970s, he suddenly became Trendy. Max had appeared briefly in the easily avoidable 1968 epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as one of the professors - although, sadly, not the Professor; he's almost unrecognizable. To save you the considerable discomfort of having to endure the entire film, Max pops up at 1:29, his only substantial line being "I came here to repair the telephone - that was twenty-four years ago!" He then joins the other professors in one of the movie's better musical numbers: "From the Ashes of Disaster Grow the Roses of Success".

How appropriate. Despite his bankruptcy, Max was in demand again and, due to his renewed fashionable status, he began to appear in works by Jarry (Ubu Roi: "my name is Uuuuuboooouuuuuooooo!!!"), Beckett and Osborne. Have you ever endured Sir Larynx Delivery's movie of The Entertainer? Christ! Avoid it at all costs. Thank goodness part of Max's stage version still exists; he makes those false, unfunny lines seem real and relevant because he is Archie Rice. Unlike Classical Actor Sir Larry O, he'd been there; he'd lived it. With that weatherbeaten face, he played clapped-out comic Archie from the inside. A quote from his co-star Angela Pleasance : "He'd come out of a wilderness in his own life, with... great pain and embitteredness, and therefore all this was incorporated into the performance."

And then there's his 1984 version of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, written for Patrick Magee who generously suggested Max for the revival. "Spoool five..." he mutters as he threads the tape onto the ancient reel-to-reel machine. Then he pauses to enjoy the sound of the word. "Spooooolllllll!!!!" Beckett must have had Max in mind. And with Max's visual-gag-filled version of Waiting For Godot, we see a direct parallel with the play's original American star, similarly-battered vulnerable genius Bert Lahr.

Max's last years were gratifyingly busy. Television appearances, choice parts in movies such as Little Dorrit and Jabberwocky (which looks like a sloppy home movie made by a Python fan; what else can you expect when the cinematographer is called Terry Bedford?; he sounds like a used car dealer), his one-man show Aspects of Max Wall (see above) which was a compendium of all the worlds of showbusiness he'd lived through; and the knowledge that his stature as a National Treasure was assured, if long overdue. He died, sadly if appropriately, after a fall down a flight of steps in a London restaurant. He probably hadn't eaten, but by the end he didn't need to: "I like a few Guinness.... fifty cigarettes a day.... and a bit of the other, when I can get it!!!"

He's gone, but he's still around. Enjoy him wherever you can. Find his autobiography The Fool On the Hill; it'll explain everything. By the time he wrote this scathing, honest book, Max had accepted that he'd known the fame and all its trappings, and all its pitfalls, and he was content to live modestly. We'll never really know the extent of his bitterness, but I'm willing to bet that it was considerable. It's such a shame that he had to endure the darkness in order to express it through his comedy. Swings and roundabouts. At least we can be assured that he knew he was the one and only Max Wall, and that he was unique. We'll never see a greater range, or such humanity. There is nobody, absolutely nobody, remotely like him.

Max Wall; Maxwell George Lorimer, 1908-1990. The funniest man I've ever seen in my entire life. God bless him.


Monday, August 13, 2007


Topping my list of classic shorts in desperate need of rediscovery are George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes one-reelers for Warner Brothers, in my opinion the funniest and most consistent short comedy series of the 40s and 50s. Columbia had quantity, RKO had gloss, but Warner's had a unique house style and a seemingly higher regard for the quality of their shorts than most of the industry. Beginning in 1942 as Pete Smith-style, semi-informative shorts, Richard Bare's "So You Want to..." films were elevated to full comedy series status in 1946 with star George O'Hanlon finally given full speaking roles as a gruff, befuddled comic everyman. Any fan of the Leon Schlesinger cartoons of the 40s should find most of the Joe McDoakes shorts strangely familiar, sharing as they do the general tone, pacing, and humor of that studio's best work. Their anarchic streak and cynical nature, cornerstones of Warner comedy, also place them well apart from the 50s TV sitcoms they passingly resemble (I have to wonder what O'Hanlon's own 1956 sitcom, Real George, was like). As for the cast, O'Hanlon is a marvel. He began the series with his personality in full bloom despite never previously having been cast in a full character role (although I imagine that it helped that his parents were vaudevillians). With his mobile face, distinctive voice and impeccable timing, it's a puzzle to me why he wasn't groomed for work outside the Joe McDoakes shorts, but as it stands, it took the cancellation of his series for O'Hanlon to move on with his career, the highlight of which, unfortunately, was his role as the voice of George Jetson. Other Joe McDoakes regulars of note were Phyllis "Lois Lane" Coates as Alice McDoakes, Jane Frazee as the post-1953 Alice, and the amazing Clifton Young as Joe's pal Homer Hotbox and other assorted menaces to Joe's general well-being (Young was formerly "Bonedust" in the 1925-31 Our Gang comedies. He should have been a huge success on TV in the 50s had he not died while smoking in bed in 1951). Why, oh why, aside from basic market forces, won't Turner simply release the full Joe McDoakes series as a DVD set?

So You Want to Be on the Radio (1948). Joe and Alice become ensnared in the vicious cycle of late-40s radio quiz shows. Clifton Young plays the ominous quizmaster of Double Up or Drop Dead!.

So You Want to Be a Detective (1948). One of the most Clampett-esque of the Joe McDoakes shorts. Joe daydreams that he's private eye "Phil Snarlow" in this satire of hardboiled detective movies and specific spoof of Robert Montgomery's use of the subjective camera in Lady In the Lake (1947). Clifton Young plays the not-so-menacing "Num Num". Watch for the multiple-dead-bodies-falling-out-of-the-closet gag that Bob Clampett used in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) done incredibly well here in live action.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Unknown Silent Comic

by Paul Etcheverry

The funniest film shown at the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured a comic only known to the most devoted of classic movie buffs: Max Davidson. You won't hear much about Max, whose career dated back to D. W. Griffith's heyday at Biograph, these days. The Berlin-born comedian's stock-in-trade was a Yiddish stereotype, rarely seen today, but absolutely rampant in the silent era. Max played a 60+ immigrant straight off the boat, deeply frustrated by this strange new land - and, in his two-reelers for Hal Roach, even more vexed by his goofy family.

The San Francisco Silent Film Fest showed a 35mm restored print from the UCLA Film And Television Archive of The Boy Friend (1929) as part of last Saturday's Hal Roach Studio tribute. Since it is both timelessly wacky and the least "ethnic" Davidson comedy I've seen (I didn't catch a single joke about his heritage in the entire film, and that's fairly rare for 1920's-era humor), this will be the one that gets revived and perhaps chosen for DVD release. The premise - not wanting their young daughter to get married anytime soon, the Davidsons act loony when the boyfriend visits - is simple, and brilliantly realized by Max and co-star Fay Holderness.

Why are we even talking about Max Davidson? First, unlike a lot of other comedians who depended on stereotype schtick, he was a most talented actor, very funny, fully capable of transcending the limitations of these roles. Secondly, in a brief stretch between history-making stints creating the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, Leo McCarey contributed inspired direction and writing to the Davidson series. The Boy Friend and the devastatingly funny Pass the Gravy (1928) stand out as unrelentingly hilarious examples of the Roach Studio style.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

The Third Banana: Pressed For Time Edition

Sorry about the quietness around here lately, folks. I'm up to my neck in Real World Hassles so I haven't had many opportunities to post over the past two weeks. Again, I'm completely open to guest posts from readers so if have, say, an in-depth analysis of the comedy of George Ovey you've been aching to make public, let me know. Meanwhile, I have two things to share. First, this January 9th, 1938 episode of The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air features (most of) the original voice artists for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves including Scotty Mattraw (Bashful), Otis Harlan (Happy), Roy Atwell (Doc), and best of all, Billy Gilbert as Sneezy. This is one of the few recordings I've heard of Billy performing his sneezing shtick in front of a live audience (in the 50s, Billy did the routine on Andy's Gang on TV and the kids in the audience would go wild). His appearance begins around 17:45, and he manages to not only crack up the audience but host John Hiestan as well. Best, you can hear Billy outrageously ramp up the convulsions as he plays to the crowd, something you'll never hear in his film performances. Wonderful stuff. Although Walt Disney and Clarence Nash are on hand as Mickey and Donald, Goofy is performed by Stuart Buchanan, not Pinto Colvig, so Buchanan may be handling Sleepy and Grumpy as well. Trivia: Lucille La Verne, who reprises her role as the Witch here ("Hello, Disney! Have a bite??") played Aunt Hannah opposite Wheeler and Woolsey in Kentucky Kernels (1934). Just thought you'd like to know. And speaking of Bert and Bob, here's "I'm that Way About You" from Caught Plastered (1931). Watch for Arthur Housman as one of the drunks at the bar (what else?).

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