Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"It's done with mirrors!"

Have I mentioned recently how much I love Flanagan and Allen? A pity that more of their solo films aren't available as they are at a marked disadvantage in the more widely-seen Crazy Gang films. Acknowledged at the time, they're a world apart from the likes of Naughton, Gold, Nervo, and Knox, the true and original Gang, who reportedly considered F&A interlopers, and their rapid-fire exchanges unwelcome interruptions of the worst kind. Their comedy informed more by Bud's experience in American vaudeville than British Panto, Flanagan and Allen as a team are rather squandered in films that rely hugely upon broad clowning and visual gags. Although Bud alone, by dint of his strong and engaging personality, becomes the focal point of the films (and ultimately of the Gang itself), Ches is simply left to waste whenever not called upon for musical numbers or proper F&A routines. On their own, however, Bud and Ches get to stretch out and display the skills that made them, for almost three decades, Britain's most popular comedy team.

A Fire Has Been Arranged was their third film appearance and their second feature. Released in 1935 in the depths of the depression, Flanagan and Allen are cast not as the affable hard-luck tramps of their hit songs, but as out-and-out criminals. They lie, cheat, and steal, and, moreover, they get away with it. At a time when the general public's respect for the Powers That Be must have been at a very low ebb, the sight of Flanagan and Allen directly and unequivocally flouting the law was apparently embraced in much the same way as the Marx Brothers' antisocial antics were stateside. Certainly, they're no less likable for it. The plot, in brief: Bud, Ches, and Hal Walters hide a valise of stolen jewelry in a hole in a field and, when released from prison a decade later, are horrified to find that a department store has been constructed on the spot. Ultimately, they are hired by the store's crooked manager (Alastair Sim in a juicy early role) to burn the place to the ground so he can collect the insurance. Lots of classic Flanagan and Allen here, most notably the much-celebrated "Whistle" routine. Note how much this routine relies upon Chesney as much as it does Bud. Ches's animated interplay with Bud is a far cry from the more understated support that Bud Abbott gave Lou Costello, but is no less skilled and, as far as I'm concerned, more fun to watch. Flanagan's rising sense of victimization is a riot.

Another brilliant moment for the team. Ches gets to display his easy-going yet mildly eccentric charm in this perfectly believable con. I wouldn't be half surprised to learn that F&A pulled this one off in real life. It seems much like the kind of schemes that Bud used to survive while traveling the US (on boxcars, no less) in the 'teens.

Just for the hell of it, here's Bud and Ches singing "Yesterday's Dreams" from the Crazy Gang feature Gasbags (1941). Yes, that's former Will Hay stooge Moore Marriott as the toothless old codger.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Frankly Disgusting

by Geoff Collins

What could possibly follow The Jitters for sheer comic verve and alcoholic excess? Frank Randle's woozy antics on a staircase make a tidy trilogy with the recently-shown efforts of our other boozed Bananas Sid Field and Leon Errol; but in Frank's case critical opinion has always been a lot harsher. In my native England the local Mancunian comedies of John E. Blakeley are still regarded with almost universal contempt. Dreary, hellishly long and poorly constructed, obviously aimed at the most basic of Northern working-class audiences, they are seen as comedy-for-idiots. To some extent this is true: Blakeley's grasp of film technique was rudimentary and he failed to bring out anything like the best in run-of-the-mill comics like Jewel and Warriss. But with his top star, the criminally-deranged Lancashire maverick Frank Randle, such things hardly mattered. Nobody was going to tell Randle what to do - ever; so if you put him in front of a camera he'd always do exactly what he pleased anyway. The films made a fortune, the audiences fell out of their seats, and everyone was happy. Who needs critics?

We have three extracts for you this time, and in turn they highlight each of feral Frank's basic needs and interests : money, booze, sex. Somewhere On Leave was Randle's third film. By 1942 he'd bludgeoned his way to top billing over chubby Harry Korris, and rightly so. The amiable Korris may have been a hit on radio with his Happidrome show but he was a drone on film, languorously reciting his lines over the top of the camera, and a bit too fond of his catchphrase "Eee, if ever a man suffered!" Frank didn't need him and neither do we. He's accompanied here by squeaky-voiced charmless runt Robby Vincent ("Enoch"), easily the least-talented comedian of all time, and monocled toff Dan Young, probably the least appreciated. In this surprisingly coherent routine, Frank demonstrates exactly how much respect he has for class authority and military discipline!

Our comedic glug-glugs handled their offscreen drinking in different ways. Jimmy James was a teetotaller; Leon Errol was professional enough to negotiate a scarily-busy career involving vaudeville, Broadway, 160 movies and some early television; Sid Field let it take hold and was dead at forty-five. Frank Randle used alcohol as rocket fuel. By all accounts he was the same offstage as on, and by his mid-fifties his stubborn irrationality and outbursts of disproportionate violence had rendered him unemployable. Thank God he still had the comedy inside him, otherwise the managements would never have tolerated him for as long as they did.

Our second clip, and it's time for Frank to have a bath and go to bed, an easy enough activity, one would imagine. Apart from a couple of brief, unnecessary cutaways to comic dude Dan Young - who often seems just as bewildered and pie-eyed as Frank - this is a one-man show worthy of (dare I say it?) the daddy of all drunk-on-a-staircase turns, Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. Part of this sequence appears on the video Jokes That Won the War, in which host Roy Hudd gleefully says of Randle: "He was a Society Entertainer!"

Frank Randle was a pretty good dancer too, as he's willing to demonstrate and describe (!) in our final clip, cheekily belching, spitting and sneaking a direct Anglo-Saxon oath past the censors. He couldn't have cared less; if they cut it out, so what? And they didn't!

We apologise for the jumpy nature of the picture during this sequence. Alan and Jennie did their best in transfering the movie from an ancient videotape every bit as wilful and decrepit as Frank Randle himself, and it just wouldn't behave. Why didn't they invent DVDs in 1895?

Yet in spite of all its inadequacies in terms of script, acting and direction (we've spared you the romantic sub-plot and boy, should you be grateful for this!) we think you'll agree that Somewhere On Leave looks superb, thanks to the luminescent cinematography of Geoffrey Faithfull; and it's the most representative showcase for the jaw-dropping crudities of its star Frank Randle, a drunken lunatic who just happened to be a wonderful comedian.

Leon Errol is Rubberlegs, and Bert Lahr is the Cowardly Lion. To us at the Third Banana, Eddie Cantor (bless him) is the Whiny Bitch; and Frank Randle is the Jitter Bugger.

You realise, of course, not that this means war, but that your devoted team at the Banana could easily just yap on about Stan and Ollie, or the Stooges; but what would that achieve? A lot more readers, undoubtedly, but it's never been our brief to go for - as John Lahr put it (describing Berle and Jerry Lewis) - sloppy, vulgar popularity. So much outstanding comedy is being overlooked as audiences prefer the soft option. I could say the soft and smelly option, and I will. Bill Fields, Keaton, the Marxes, they're all timeless comedians, we all know that. But the same can be said of Joe Cook, Ed Wynn, Sid Field, Arthur Askey... and the Lion, the Bitch and the Jitter Bugger (who's probably sleeping it off in the Wardrobe).

The Forest of Comedy is endless. Please, dear readers, don't restrict yourself to one small part of it.

End of rant. Thank you. BUUURRRPPPP!!!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Whole Thoughts From A Half-Wit

by Nick Santa Maria

Hello there fellow comedy buffs. It's me, Nick Santa Maria, star of stage, screen, and now, blog. Since Aaron Neathery is a good friend, and since I was originally supposed to be a regular contributor to this blog (although I can't fathom why my bathroom habits would be of anybody's concern), I decided to jump into the fray and put in my 25 cents worth (allowing for inflation). With your indulgence I'm going to supply some recent random thoughts about some of the stuff I've been exposed to of late.

I recently purchased Harry Langdon's Three's a Crowd and The Chaser, now available from KINO. Langdon directed these two features and, in my opinion, did a fine job. There are shots that don't match very well, and there were some harmful cuts made to Three's a Crowd which makes it a bit confusing at moments, but all in all it is much better than I was led to believe. I will say, though, that The Chaser seems more like a bloated two-reeler than a fully fleshed out feature. It resembles Saturday Afternoon in substance, but it veers in that Harry is really a carouser. And he really seems to have some sexual appeal to the women in this film. Regardless of content (these films have been written about to death), I always welcome a chance to watch Harry. At one point he tries to figure out how to get an egg out of a chicken. It sounds simple, and it is, but in Harry's hands it's hilarious. He is absolutely fascinating. There is nothing like him. Nothing. There is a scene in The Chaser where Harry believes he drank a glassful of poison when in actuality he has downed a heaping glass of castor oil. He lays down on the kitchen floor and covers himself in a blanket to await his impending death (he's committing suicide). He waits. And he waits. And he waits. He waits for what seems like a freakin' hour! Then he jumps up with the realization that he desperately needs to be in a bathroom, bolting up the stairs in a panic. I've never seen anything like it. No wonder his audience abandoned him. I can picture a table of silent comedians, who'd made it successfully into the sound era, shaking their heads and saying, "Poor Harry... I told him to play to the audience. But no. He had to have his own way. He was too different!". And that was the trouble. There was nobody like Langdon. And I believe that he confused the hell out of audiences back then. Hell, he confuses them now. What a brave, talented, sad little artist.

I've become addicted to What's My Line. I set my DVR to record it every night off of the Game Show Network. And as I watch everyday I ask myself the same question, "When did we all get so stupid?". This is sophisticated, witty, and multi-syllabic entertainment at it's best. The people are so polite and nice to one another. It's such a far cry from today's TV world where the comedy comes from the pleasure of humiliating people. Where else can one see Fred Allen on a semi-regular basis on the wasteland he wrote so eloquently about, TV? As a part of the panel (Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, and Dorothy Kilgallen) Allen seems uncomfortable and unable to give full rein to his wit. He begins many a joke but is forced to pull back as if he was interrupting someone at a dinner party. When he does get the spotlight he is very, very funny. This was Allen's last regular gig in a medium that held little use for him. He seems a bit tired and a bit befuddled, but he's always sardonic and funny. And when Fred Allen doesn't assume the number two chair position, Steve Allen is there in his place (no relation, other than the great wit). Watching this ancient game show has led me to re-assess the talented Mr. Allen. Steve Allen was so ubiquitous in my youth that I admit to taking him for granted. Now I see why I was drawn to him in the first place. He's a master wit of the first order. (I had the pleasure of auditioning for him once back in 1983. He was producing a small production of his show, Sammy Glick is Alive and Sick. Coincidentally, I did an imitation of Fred Allen during my piece and made him laugh. I didn't get the job, though, and he hired an upstart by the name of Bill Maher instead.) And let me tell you, the mystery guests alone are worth watching for. I don't think I can remember seeing Herbert Marshall, Ed Wynn, Edgar Bergen, Liz Taylor, and Bob Hope all in one week....on a game show! I've already gotten a few of my friends hooked , and if you start to watch you'll be hooked, too.

I've recently discover Big Hearted Arthur Askey. TCM showed three of his films back to back to back and I'm now a fan. What an irreverent little pain in the arse. He's like a good natured pitbull. His modus operandi in relation to the other characters in the films seems to be, "LOVE ME OR I'LL BADGER YOU INTO THE GROUND!". I thought Groucho, Robert Woolsey, and others of that ilk were brazen and unyielding... well, Arthur gives them all a run for their money. He's tiny, he's kind of feminine and he's a riot. He works with a "partner" who goes by the name of Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. I remember my dear second wife saying to me once, after watching an Abbott and Costello film, "Abbott doesn't do anything. Lou's the whole show.". Well, despite her totally uninformed opinion, it made me realize that if Lou Costello were living in England in the 40's Abbott would have been in the same boat as "Stinky" Murdoch, or Jerry Desmonde (who apparently died penniless and alone). Murdoch is an equal partner to Askey in no uncertain terms. In fact they would have worked beautifully as an official team. Murdoch is tall and handsome where Askey is short and goofy looking... Murdoch can get the girl, play straight, and even act... Askey is more freakish by nature. What was with English comedy performers? Will Hay dumped Moffatt and Marriott and paid dearly. Tony Hancock dumped Sid James and Kenneth Williams and we all know where Mr. Hancock ended. So, it is with slight discomfort that I watch the Askey films, but not enough to consider the films anything but delightful. If you get the chance check out, Band Waggon, The Ghost Train, and Charley's Big Hearted Aunt, by all means do.

I was recently having a meal with the still lovely Ann Jeffries, and knowing full well that she was not only the best Tess Trueheart in the movies, and co-star to Lugosi and Atwill, not mention star of the Topper TV series, but she worked in a few films with those Third Banana wannabes, Brown and Carney! So, being me, they were the first ones I wanted to know about. Well, as expected, she didn't have much to say other than, "They were very nice, and very talented, but they weren't a team. We knew it, they knew it, and the audiences knew it.". It reminded me of the time I approached AMC's long ago host, Bob Dorian (back when AMC almost rivaled TCM as a classic film station). The first thing I asked him was, "Why don't you show more Wheeler and Woolsey movies?". He looked at me like I had just landed from the planet Zoomar, and he said, "You like them?". I answered in the affirmative and he replied, "Then there must be something very wrong with you.". I guess he didn't collect their films.

Oh... and if you dig really hip and intelligent comedy, give a listen to Aaron Neathery's Electromatic Radio. It's brilliantly funny.

That's all for now. I'm going to watch What's My Line. I wonder who the mystery guest will be? Wally Brown, perhaps?

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008


by Geoff Collins

"Never mind who! I know who! You know you can't boombazzle me - I mean, you can't bamboozle me! Huh! I've been boozled before!"

Leon Errol is jealous. His wife's just won a dance contest with the instructor Maurice (pronounced Morr-eece) and Leon's decided to visit the dancing academy and give Maurice a pop on the nose: "You can't drag our good game in the nutter!" During the next fifteen minutes of his definitive 1938 RKO short The Jitters, Leon manages to embrace all known human failings, including drunkenness. Especially drunkenness. He's been boozled before. Bill Robinson may have been "Bojangles", with his wonderful stairway dance, but Leon Errol - "Rubberlegs" - was equally legendary, the inspiration for many a comic drunk on a staircase. We've already seen Sid Field in London Town, and we'll eventually see Frank Randle in Somewhere On Leave; and those fine English top-hatted topers Jimmy James and Freddie Frinton were just as hilariously inaccurate in their attempts to smoke the broken-in-half cigarette. In Germany, the TV recording of Freddie Frinton's "Dinner For One" sketch is transmitted every New Year's Eve, so although he's a footnote in the UK, to the Germans he's an icon. It's worth the trip!

Leon Errol was born in Sydney in 1881, and in his teens he abandoned a medical career for the stage. By 1910 he was in New York, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies with his portrayal of the comprehensively refreshed man-about-town, staggering all over the stage with balletic grace yet speaking with suspiciously precise emphasis in an unconvincing attempt to prove his sobriety. "Leon has not had our good fortune" wrote Bill Fields to Ed Wynn in 1938, and while this may now be true in terms of posterity's opinion, during a long career Leon was always fantastically busy. From 1924 onwards he appeared in over sixty feature films and a hundred starring shorts - as well as running the Black Pussy on Santa Monica Boulevard, a cafe immortalized (in necessarily bowdlerized form) in The Bank Dick. Unlike his fellow Aussies Bevan and Pollard he didn't spend his final years in comical-cockney bit parts, although his Britishness was most useful in his portrayal of Lord Epping in the Mexican Spitfire series. Leon may have been a supporting actor in features, but in two-reelers he was a Star Turn.

In fact the eighteen-minute format was perfect for him. Most of his shorts were made at RKO, economical but classy-looking little farces in which shifty-eyed Leon runs around trying to cover up some indiscretion involving alcoholic excess and a blonde or two. Inevitably, despite his hypocritical blusterings, he comes unstuck and the truth is revealed, which serves him right as he's invariably dead guilty.

With such a rigorous schedule, inspiration must have flagged occasionally, which is probably why Leon's team decided to build a two-reeler around one of his old Follies routines. Leon lurches into the dancing school and is mistaken for their top instructor, resulting in a roomful of lovely young women slavishly following his every step. Contrived? Absolutely. But there's so much to enjoy here. The supporting cast: dizzy Vivian Tobin as Leon's wife; "Edgar Kennedy's lazy brother-in-law" Jack Rice as the maitre d'; Bobby Barber in a tiny part as the waiter; and especially Richard Lane, that incisive straightman for so many comedians. He feeds Leon beautifully and he's clearly enjoying every minute.

But above all, we can see the daddy of all stage and screen drunks, Leon Errol, showing us absolutely everything he did best within the space of eighteen minutes. It's a master class in comedy.

Readers, it gives me great pleasure to say, on behalf of the Third Banana team: we give you The Jitters!

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