Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Terror-ific Second Annual Third Banana Halloween Anniversary Spooktacular Clip-O-Thon!

Two years, 212 posts and counting, folks, and we ain't dead yet! Here are a few ghost-tastic ghoul-clips for your vampire-joyment. Boo!

Bela Lugosi performs the "Vampire Bat Illusion" with Shirley Patterson in this 1953 episode of You Asked For It. At the end, Bela references a couple of never-to-be projects: The Phantom Ghoul (in 3-D!) and a TV series, Dr. Acula ("Dracula?" asks host Art Baker. "Dracula??" replies Bela, shocked. "For heaven's sake no! Just.. Dr. Acula!").

Germán Valdés 'Tin-Tan' and his brother Manuel 'Loco' Valdés perform a spirited (ho ho!) number entitled "Un Sueño Es Solo Un Sueño" in Los Fantasmas burlones (1965). Antonio Espino 'Clavillazo' and Adalberto Martínez 'Resortes' watch from the audience. Mexicomics and in-camera effects galore! God, I love this film!

Sid Noel's Morgus the Magnificent was, in my opinion, the cleverest of the 50s-60s TV horror hosts (perhaps I should say is as Dr. Morgus is reportedly still in the game). As much as I like Ghoulardi and Zacherly, Dr. Momus Alexander Morgus tops them all thanks to Noel's wonderfully dry delivery, clever physical comedy, and his insistence on backing his character up with a performance philosophy. Based out of New Orleans, Dr. Morgus was the first horror host to star in his own regional feature, The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus, in 1962. In all, it's not a particularly good movie, but whenever the silly plot is shoved out of the way long enough for one of Dr. Morgus's lab-based set-pieces, it shines. Some of the best early-60s "sick" humor I've seen.

Atlanta TV horror host Bestoink Dooley (George Ellis) also starred in his own regional film, The Legend of Blood Mountain, in 1965. It's a jaw-dropper. Some of the boldest, most in-your-face padding in the history of film, bargain monster, awkward comedy sequences, and Groucho's girlfriend/secretary/live-in tormentor Erin Fleming in her first motion picture! It's much less a comedy than The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus, and not just because most of the comedy falls flat. They went for more scares than laughs and, unfortunately, failed to deliver either.

Here's a little stretch of padding I like to call... Bestoink Dooley Goes to Sleep!

Nighty-night! IF YOU DARE!!

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Remembering Jack Benny

by Paul F. Etcheverry

"I can't work fast - I have to wait for laughs." - Jack Benny

Hugely popular in his day, Jack Benny (1894-1974) seems under-rated and somewhat forgotten now, primarily because his comedy doesn't even show up on cable TV any more. So Jack Benny, for decades a king of show business, is, given the short-attention span of our current pop culture, soon on his way to becoming about as well-known as Joe Cook and Lloyd Hamilton.

To refresh those short-attention-span memories, here's a clip that demonstrates Jack's ability to get big laughs with a motion, stance or expression - or sometimes by doing nothing - with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, from April 3, 1955.

The Jack Benny Program, which ran for 244 episodes, from 1950 through the 1964-65 season, has braved the test of time wear quite well. The best episodes are hilarious, the equal of the great silent and early talkie short comedies from Hal Roach and RKO.

By the time Benny's popular radio show hit television, his characterization - vain, self-obsessed, foppish, insecure and above all, cheap - was very well established. Among the carryovers from the radio shows are his wonderfully appalled reactions to the supporting comics, such true 'third bananas' as Frank Nelson.

The series differs from Benny's radio work or later TV specials in featuring some wonderful way-out sight gags, enhanced by Benny's reactions. In this sense, they recall later generations of comics - Ernie Kovacs, Peter Sellers - and such cartoonists as Tex Avery more than Benny's contemporaries.

Paramount among the way-out gags were the show's willingness to 'break the fourth wall' and toy with the pop culture images of Jack and his guest stars. While George Burns and Bob Hope also enjoyed revealing that it's all make believe and watched by an audience out there in movie/TV land, Jack and his writers break that fourth wall constantly. Some of the funniest shows in the series combine both elements, such as the November 5, 1961 episode where Raymond Burr, representing Jack as uber-lawyer Perry Mason, is both inarticulate and inept; Perry explains the gross discrepancy by snapping to Jack, 'my writers are better than yours!' The January 22, 1963 episode featuring Peter Lorre opens with Jack assuring all that Peter only plays a sicko onscreen, but is a nice guy off-screen. Peter subsequently sings 'I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Buried Dear Old Dad' and spends the rest of the show playing the bad guy - but all the while trying to appear normal - to the hilt.

An overdue reevaluation and revival can begin with Jack Benny's prolific TV/radio work and his witty performance in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yoo-Hoo! It's Me!!

Sure.. I like thoughtful, understated comedy as much as the next guy, but I reserve a special place in my heart for comics like Pinky Lee. Was there ever a harder working entertainer? He wasn't exactly clever, nor was he original, but he was completely genuine. Even the lisp was his own, albeit exaggerated for effect. He was a cyclone, more hyperkinetic than Jerry Lewis, yet still amazingly controlled thanks to loads of talent and decades of experience in burlesque. Kids loved him, adults reviled him. Milton Berle spitefully quipped at a star-studded dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria that "if a bomb hit this joint, Pinky Lee would be a big hit", an odd comment considering that Pinky was a big hit at the time, with kids, at least, and Pinky seemed quite content with that.

Pinky Lee's Circus Time, aka The Pinky Lee Show (1954)

The legend persists that Pinky's uncanny gusto finally caught up with him, resulting in an on-air stroke. Not true, of course, but his tireless show-must-go-on attitude did cause him to ignore a nasal drip that was gradually poisoning him. In 1955, as a result of the infection, Pinky collapsed on live TV during one of his songs, an unimaginably shocking sight for millions of his young fans. His schedule of six shows a week plus personal appearances couldn't have helped his condition much. As a result of his collapse and absence from the air as he recuperated, the story arose that Pinky had died. The networks apparently felt that he might as well have. In their books, Pinky had become a Grade A "risk". In 1957, NBC pressed Pinky into service as the host of The Gumby Show.. for a fraction of what he had been earning before (Pinky claimed a take-home pay of approximately $34 a week). It was a smaller, more intimate program, and Pinky reasonably scaled back his style, but only by degrees. In this final episode of The Gumby Show, Pinky plays the xylophone, sings, tap dances, and is still giving every bit of business 200%. A professional to the end.

And that was more or less the end for Pinky Lee on TV. In 1965, he starred in a weekday revival of The Pinky Lee Show on ABC, but the 7:30 AM timeslot doomed it to a short run. Pinky also complained that he had no creative control, although it must have been becoming increasingly difficult to determine exactly who he was trying to reach even if the show had been ideal. It was now a decade since his heyday. The curtain was coming down fast, not just on Pinky, but on the entire breed of performer that he exemplified. He had survived longer than most because he had taken refuge in children's television where his style could still be appreciated for what it was, but now even that was changing beyond recognition. I can barely imagine a still-popular Pinky Lee on TV in the latter-half of the 60s, doing stock gags about hippies and rock n' roll, but I'm just as sure that he'd have given it the same old 200% had he the opportunity. But when it was over, it was over.

22 minutes and 54 seconds of Tootsie Roll commercials from The Pinky Lee Show and Winchell-Mahoney Time.

Pinky Lee appeals to the least jaded part of me, the part that can still enjoy terrible puns and the sight of a man playing the xylophone while tap dancing. Say what you will about him and his over-the-top style, the guy was the real thing, something his postmodern progeny Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens certainly wasn't (nothing against Paul Reubens, mind you. He wasn't Pee-Wee and it was the cognitive dissonance in the wake of the scandal that wrecked his career as a pseudo-children's entertainer). I find something deeply disturbing in the idea that a Pinky Lee couldn't survive a second on today's network or cable TV without adopting the requisite degree of pre-packaged, thoroughly dishonest cynicism that has become de rigueur even for children's entertainment. Have we really gone too far down the road? In an age where snark passes for wit and unthinking skeptical posturing has supplanted genuine critical thought, an entertainer as skilled, as driven, and as basic as Pinky Lee would be a breath of fresh air.. to me, anyway.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Stuff and Nonsense, Part II

More ink-based classic comedy odds and ends filched from Ebay.

A 1922 trade ad for Charley Chase's brother Paul Parrott's first series for Hal Roach.

At five reels, Grandma's Boy (1922) was Harold Lloyd's first true feature, the four reel featurette A Sailor-Made Man having been released the year before. I love the copy emphasizing that Grandma's Boy was still doing phenomenal business "in the Midst of Summer", a reminder that in the days before air-conditioning, crowded theaters in Summer were nasty, smelly sweatboxes you wouldn't want to spend too much time in.

1926 Pathe' exhibitor's yearbook promo for Lloyd's features. There's something a little unsettling about that portrait of Harold.

And speaking of unsettling, here's a 1922 trade ad for Eddie Lyons' Arrow comedies. Maybe that expression meant "zany funmaker" in 1922. Today it means "dangerous madman concealing a knife".

Nothing duller than a "respectable" silent short comedy. If you were the type of movie patron offended by the crude and untoward antics of, say, that disreputable rapscallion Buster Keaton, you could always watch Carter de Haven for a round of polite and barely audible chuckles. Mr. P. A. Powers is the same Pat Powers that distributed and provided the sound equipment for Walt Disney's first talking cartoons, screwed him out of his profits, and then signed his key animator and business partner Ub Iwerks out from under him to set up another studio.

Exploding stoves are wacky! Look at that cat fly! Ho ho! Who stars in Fox Imperial Comedies? Apparently no one worth mentioning by name. Just put your trust in William Fox that the stars are fully qualified and accredited Laughmakers. George Marshall did direct some of the Imperial Comedies, but King of the Kitchen (1926) was directed by none other than former Karno vet and Chaplin crony Albert Austin, best remembered as the wonderfully deadpan man whose alarm clock Chaplin eviscerates in The Pawnshop (1916). Austin reportedly spent his final years as a studio guard at Warner Brothers.. sad, but a definite improvement over the fate of former silent star Karl Dane who was reduced to selling hot dogs outside the MGM gates... as I'm sure I've mentioned before, ghoul that I am.

This 1926 promo for the Fox Animal Comedies was drawn by cartoonist, animator, puppeteer and all-round renaissance man Tony Sarg, who, among other things, created the first figural balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927 (including the first character balloon, Felix the Cat). Sarg's association with Fox and the Animal Comedies is a total mystery to me as he had been out of the film business for several years. As for the films, I'm assuming they consisted of comically edited and doctored up nature footage.

Any idea who the mustachioed star of Educational's 1922 Mermaid Comedies might be? At first glance I thought it might be Billy Bletcher, but the dates don't add up. Is it Jimmie Adams, perhaps?

In 1926, Educational's tag "The Best of the Old and the Best of the New" had yet to take on the decidedly negative connotations it would during the 30s when the studio developed a decidedly unfair reputation as the elephants' graveyard of film comedy. They had a pretty good lineup in 1926, but I suspect that Educational made more money that year from the globally popular Felix the Cat cartoons than from the rest of their of their output combined.

One of Hal Roach's numerous Westerns starring Rex the Wonder Horse, this one written in part by Stan Laurel. There's even a horse love interest, "Lady", and a horse villain, "The Killer"! Kids in 1926 must have gone nuts over this.

1926 Charlie Chaplin reissues from Pathe'. The copy essentially reads "Chaplin. 'Nuff said."

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