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  • 04/13/12--13:16: The Tilting House Routine


  • A house tilting, and its occupants being tossed from one side of the house to the other, was first attributed to ghostly mischief in The Haunted House (1908).


    It later lost its supernatural trappings and became the result of either natural disaster or simple slapstick anarchy.


    Larry Semon in Lightning Love (1923)



    Cliff Bowes in Welcome Danger! (1925)



    The best known version of the routine was crafted by Charlie Chaplin for The Gold Rush (1925). 


    A more modern version of the routine was featured in Black Sheep (1996). 


    The idea of a Gold Rush-style cabin suspended high above ground, with no tilting at all involved, can be found in Red Skelton's I Dood It (1943).



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  • 04/25/12--11:58: Hide in Plain Sight



  • Charlie Chaplin in The Idle Class (1921)



     W. C. Fields in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939)



    Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)


    Chaplin's version of this routine was elegantly choreographed.  Fields' version was uproariously performed.  By comparison, Myers' version may come across as crass and overdone, but it still manages in its own way to amusingly elaborate on this longstanding premise.


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    The most oft-used comedy routine in film history was the man-child falling into the grasp of the femme fatale.  Harry Langdon took ownership of this routine in the 1920s, but a comedian who came to use the routine even more frequently than Langdon was Lou Costello.  Here are a few examples. 


     
    Filmmakers never tired of the premise.  Even after Costello had become worn out fumbling around on a couch with these sinister ladies, other comedians were willing to hop on the couch and see what they could do.

    Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955)



    Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954)

     
     


    Lou Costello in Hit the Ice (1943)



    Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955)


    The tradition carries on today as vamp meets vamp in Dark Shadows (2012).



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    Recreations of Buster Keaton's famous falling wall gag have found their way into music videos and cartoons.


    Weird Al Yankovic, "Amish Paradise" (1996)



    The Chemical Brothers, "The Test" (2002)



    Popeye, "For Better or Nurse" (1945)



    Teen Titans, "Apprentice - Part 2" (2003)



    Shrek the Third (2007)



    Phineas and Ferb, "Spa Day" (2009)



    The Simpsons, "American History X-Cellent" (2010)




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  • 05/13/12--14:15: Another Fine Manes


  • In the short story "Another Fine Mess," Ray Bradbury imagined Laurel & Hardy's ghosts haunting the staircase where The Music Box was filmed.  Bradbury described the haunting as follows:

    There was a series of shouts and then a huge banging crash as the music box, in the dark, rocketed down the hill skittering on the steps, playing chords where it hit, swerving rushing and ahead of it, running the two shapes pursued by the musical beast, yelling tripping shouting, warning the Fates, crying out to the gods, down and down, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred steps. 

    I suspect, though, that this location holds more sentiment for fans than the comedians, who would have little reason to spend their afterlife being chased down a flight of stairs by a phantom piano.


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  • 05/13/12--14:28: The Wet Paint Routine


  • In Habeas Corpus (1928), Oliver Hardy shinnies up a post to read a street sign at the top.  He reaches the top only to find a sign that reads, "Wet Paint."  He can see now that the post has been freshly painted and the paint has left a thick white stripe running down the front of his suit.


    This gag appeared earlier in a 1925 Sennett comedy called Sneezing Beezers!.  Laurel & Hardy used the gag again in the 20th Century Fox feature The Big Noise (1944).


    The gag continued to be used by others in a variety of films, including I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and The Runaway Bus (1954).



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    The other day, I happened to watch The Taming of the Snood, a two-reel comedy that Buster Keaton made for Columbia Pictures in 1940.  Keaton's Columbia shorts should, by all reason, be a treat for a Keaton fan like myself.  The series put the comic master back in front of the cameras after he had spent two years working behind the scenes as a gag man for M-G-M and 20th Century Fox.  His creative team included esteemed comedy veterans Del Lord, Clyde Bruckman and Felix Adler.  Best of all, the series gave Keaton the opportunity to revisit many of his classic routines.  Unfortunately, this series did not turn out too well and the reworked routines may have been the biggest problem.  It looks as if, under the supervision of producer Jules White, the process of reconstructing the vintage routines included sucking them dry of the slightest traces of subtly or depth.  This is particularly evident with the two routines revived for The Taming of the Snood.

    Keaton was funny trying on different men's hats in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).  The selection of hats, which included a checkered cap, a black fedora, a straw hat and a western hat, was no longer seen as being funny enough.

     
     
     
     
    So, now, Keaton sought laughs trying on impossibly silly women's hats, including a hat in the shape of a giant milk bottle.

     
     
     

    The second routine recreated in The Taming of the Snood was carried over from Spite Marriage (1929).  The Spite Marriage routine was, on its face, serious.  Dorothy Sebastian regrets having married Keaton to get back at a faithless suitor.  She is so distraught seeing her former lover at a nightclub that she drinks herself into a stupor.  Keaton dutifully gets Sebastian home and then, when she falls unconscious, he struggles to carry her to bed. 

     
     

    The comparable situation in The Taming of the Snood is not at all serious.  Taking Sebastian's place is eccentric dancer Elsie Ames.  Ames plays a ditzy maid who meets Keaton while he is delivering a hat.  The ditzy maid lacks the emotional heft of the distraught wife of Spite Marriage.  She is an incidental character who shows up randomly.  Her heft is purely physical.  Ames is performing an oafish dance as she dusts furniture.  A misstep causes her to bang her head into a wall, the result of which is that she becomes unconscious.  Keaton tries to revive her with a shot of whiskey, but he is distracted by a squawking parrot and pours too much whiskey down her throat.  The whiskey elevates Ames to a manic state.  Her alcohol-fueled aggression, which puts her at the opposite extreme of Sebastian's unconscious state, causes her to wrestle with Keaton as he labors to lift her off the floor.

     
     
     

    Humor is not immediately evident in the idea of a man lifting his drunk wife into a bed or a man trying on a black fedora, but Keaton had the unique talent to turn less than outrageous material into great comedy.  It is a shame that he had to resort to a milk bottle hat, a wrestling maid and other broad comedy devices while at Columbia.


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  • 06/09/12--08:52: French Farce Sparks Debate



  • The French comedy The Intouchables (2011) has broken box office records throughout Europe and has won multiple awards, including three Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix awards and a César Award for Best Actor.  But this crowd-pleasing film has run into a controversy now that it has arrived in the United States. 

    The film's slight plot gives no hint of controversial subject matter.  Philippe (François Cluzet), a wealthy man who is quadriplegic as the result of a paragliding accident, is conducting interviews at his mansion to find a live-in caretaker.  Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese immigrant from the Paris ghettos, has just been released from prison after completing a six-month sentence for robbery.  He applies for the caretaker job only because he needs a signature on the rejection slip to qualify for unemployment benefits.  He is surprised when Philippe, who likes Driss' candor and fervor, accepts him for the job. 

    The film finds a great deal of humor in a culture clash that develops between these two very different men.  In the end, the odd couple have a profound effect on each other’s lives.  Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote, "Driss' infectious bonhomie makes him indispensable to Philippe, encouraging him in romance and generally blowing fresh air into the stolid household with his crude but warmhearted manners."  In turn, Philippe teaches Driss about the pleasures of fine art, the exhilaration of paragliding, and the rewards of personal responsibility.  The story is based on the true-life relationship of a wealthy French quadriplegic and his Algerian caretaker depicted in a 2004 documentary called A La Vie, A La Mort.

    Stephen Cole of Canada's The Globe and the Mail, described the film as a "brazen hybrid" of Driving Miss Daisy (mutually rewarding friendship develops between a wealthy, infirm widow and her black caretaker) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (true story of a paralyzed man who rises above his disabilities).  The film, though, is probably more of the former than the latter.  Roger Ebert wrote, "It might help to think of The Intouchables as a French spinoff of Driving Miss Daisy, retitled Pushing Monsieur Philippe."

    So, what is the controversy?

    Kate Taylor of the Globe and Mail wrote, "American critics have been very uncomfortable with the depiction of Driss as someone utterly lacking in cultural knowledge and basic manners. . ."  As an example, Taylor brings up a scene in which Driss "disrupts an opera performance with loud, derisive laughter."   This is what caused him to laugh.


     It is a man dressed as a tree.  Can you blame him for laughing?  


    Jon Frosch of The Atlantic complained that the film “leans … heavily on regressive culture-clash shtick and unimaginative stereotypes.”  More heated criticism came from Weissberg.  He did bother to mince words when he wrote, "Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor.  It's painful to see Sy, a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."

    The filmmakers, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, have insisted that it was their intention to make a statement about cultural co-existence.  Toledano vehemently disagrees with Weissberg's assessment of the dance scene.  “[It's] the scene where he dances that won Omar his César,” he said, “It’s an act of friendship, the guy has no arms and legs, so Driss is his arms and legs.”

    Driss in fact gets everyone at the party to dance and he clearly does this as an act of friendship.  He comes across admirably in the scene due equally to his smooth moves and his good intentions.

    French journalists have responded to the criticism by accusing American journalists of being overly sensitive with issues of race and being obsessed with political correctness.  François Durpaire, author of "L'Amérique de Barack Obama," cannot see how these critics have reason to accuse the film of expressing unfair bias towards the character of Driss when the character is not portrayed in a negative manner.

    I wrote in "The Funny Parts" about the way in which the comic servants of the Commedia dell'arte and the superstitious black slave characters in minstrel shows became entangled together in silent film.  Something similar happened in this situation.  Two tropes joined together into one.  Let us examine those tropes separately.

    The idea of a rich man welcoming a poor man into his home and the poor man changing the lives of the people in the home goes back to Jean Renoir's Boudu saved from Drowning (1932).  The story, which originated in a 1919 play, was designed to mock class differences.  This premise turned up in other films, including My Man Godfrey (1936) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).


    Boudu saved from Drowning was a pointed satire.  Boudu, a despondent tramp, is ungrateful when a well-to-do bookseller stops him from drowning himself in the Seine.  The bookseller's family adopts the unmannerly tramp with the intention of making a good gentleman out of him, but he resists every effort to tame him.  In the end, he is irredeemable, unchangeable, and uncompromised. 


    In the same way, it is Driss' standing in society that matters most in The Intouchables.  His race is incidental, which the filmmakers make clear by substituting the original story's Algerian immigrant with a Senegalese immigrant.  But it is not as if the Driss character is used to convey a great social message.  Driss undergoes more of a refinement than Boudu in Boudu saved from Drowning but less of a refinement than Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play Pygmalion.  Not that he needs much refinement.  He doesn't need elocution lessons like Eliza.  He doesn't need a shave or stylish new clothes like Boudu.  More important, he is not the irrepressible hedonistic beast that Boudu is.  Boudu is quick to seduce the family's maid.  In contrast, Driss fails miserably in his feeble efforts to seduce Philippe's lovely assistant (Audrey Fleurot).  It must be said in his defense, though, that the assistant turns out to be a lesbian.


    The Intouchables has been so successful because, simply, it is a feel-good film about friendship.  Bill Goodykoontz of USA Today found that, although the story is lacking in tension and progresses in a safe and predictable manner, Cluzet and Sy are "so infectiously likable" that the film rises above its story problems.


    Durpaire believes that, if this film is racist, then many of Eddie Murphy's films are racist.  This black man from a low-income background is entranced by his splendid new living quarters, including a luxury bathtub.


    Where have I seen that before?


    Oh, right, Murphy's Trading Places (1983).

    Detractors are also bothered by the fact that Driss follows in the tradition of the subservient black character who is entirely too virtuous and helpful.  This brings us to the second trope - the Magic Negro.

    Rita Kempley wrote in a 2003 article "'Magic Negro' Saves the Day, but at The Cost of His Soul, "Morgan Freeman plays God in Bruce Almighty; Laurence Fishburne a demigod in The Matrix Reloaded, and Queen Latifah a ghetto goddess in Bringing Down the House. . . Every one of the actors has to help a white guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending.  Bruce (Jim Carrey) won't get the girl.  Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become the next Messiah.  And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't get his groove on. . . It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives.  For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters.  Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in The Legend of Bagger Vance." 

    Spike Lee asked, "How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?"  He noted that The Legend of Bagger Vance takes place in Depression-era Georgia.  He said, "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing!"

    Other magical black characters who benevolently aided and abetted white men include Whoopi Goldberg's psychic in Ghost (1990) and Don Cheadle's guardian angel in The Family Man (2000).

    This trend can be traced back to the 1930s.  Hattie McDaniel was memorable as Mammy, the outspoken and duty-bound servant, in Gone with the Wind (1939).  She acted as the moral conscience of Scarlett O'Hara.  She was critical when Scarlett ate food too fast, when Scarlett dyed her hair, and when Scarlett pursued a married man.  She declared, "It ain't fittin'. . . it ain't fittin'.   It jes' ain't fittin'." 

    This character type was extended to war movies produced in the early 1940s.  Thomas Cripps, author of "Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era," found a soulfulness in the black soldiers portrayed in these movies, including Sahara (1943), Bataan (1943), Crash Dive (1943) and Lifeboat (1944).  Here is a scene from Lifeboat.


    Joe (Canada Lee), a black steward, stands as the group's conscience.  His moral superiority is made clear when he refuses to join the other lifeboat passengers in murdering a duplicitous German prisoner of war and chooses instead to back away from the savage act.

     
    This scene from Crash Dive shows Ben Carter providing sympathetic counsel to gruff James Gleason.


    This scene from Sahara sets an example for Jim Brown's classic death scene in The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Nothing is more tear-jerking than a soldier sacrificing his life for his fellow soldiers.


     Lastly, here is a clip from Bataan.


    Jonathan Kim of ReThink Reviews wrote, "Magic Negro films seem to come from filmmakers who want desperately to show how much they like black people, yet they know so few actual black people that they end up creating idealized, unrealistic caricatures."

    A good writer follows a line of logic when he creates a character.  It is a reasonable assumption that a poor person, who isn't preoccupied by materialism, would be more in touch with their spirituality.  It follows that spiritual people would be more connected to the larger reality and would be able to appreciate the transcendent nature of the world.  True, this prevalent belief in a spirit world was mocked in silent films, in which black people were quick to be frightened by strange apparitions in haunted house farces.  But these spiritual black characters aren't mocked in the context of these war films and the other characters in the films look upon them with respect and affection.  This was a vast improvement to the way that blacks were treated in early films.  Take for instance the 1915 Lubin comedy Monkey Business (1915).  The plot was summarized by The Moving Picture World as follows: "Gerald expresses a pet monkey that he has captured in Africa to his fiancée.  On the way the monkey escapes, and when the crate is opened a little pickaninny has taken Jocko's place."  It cannot be more dehumanizing to equate a black child to a monkey.  Racial harmony is not advocated by the Lubin cartoon A Strenuous Ride (1914), which, according to The Moving Picture World, depicted a "big coon" being chased through a neighborhood by a bulldog. 

    Sidney Poitier played saintly caretaker roles in several films, including The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963) and To Sir, with Love (1967).  Poitier can best be compared to Sy when he helps a blind, uneducated white girl to escape her impoverished and abusive home life in A Patch of Blue (1965).  Cripps wrote, "Poitier spent his whole career in this position. . . [He] actually carried the cross for Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told."


    Yet, the most magical caretaker of this period was not black.  The mammy was outshone by a nanny in the Disney classic Mary Poppins (1964).  Mary Poppins, in her working class garb, comes into a wealthy family's home and brings the family closer together.  Several plot points of Mary Poppins just so happen to match plot points of The Intouchables.  Mary Poppins applies for the nanny job after it has been vacated by a series of nannies, all of whom quit the job out of sheer exasperation.  It is implied in The Intouchables that Philippe had been unhappy with his past caretakers and none of them lasted too long.  When Mary Poppins arrives at the home, she finds a queue of disagreeable looking candidates waiting to be reviewed for the position.

    Mary Poppins


     The Intouchables


    Mary Poppins, like Driss, sadly leaves once her work is done.

    And let us not forget that Mary Poppins flies.


    Mary Poppins


    The Intouchables


    The great success of Mary Poppins shows that an audience will find a guardian angel appealing regardless of their race.  

    The two tropes came together in Bringing Down the House (2003), in which the person who schools uptight rich folks in the ways of enjoying life is an outspoken black woman (Queen Latifah).  The film did well at the box office, but critics did not respond favorably.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, critics generally came to conclusion that the film was "filled with outdated and offensive racial jokes."

    The fact that the Driss character is from Senegal is a subordinate trope.  In recent years, other films have shown Senegalese characters opening up distressed white characters to the joys of life.  In The Visitor (2008), a widowed college economics professor (Richard Jenkins) is drawn out of his lonely existence by an immigrant couple, one of whom is a Senegalese jewelry designer.  A Senegalese immigrant (Sanaa Lathan) changes Matthew Broderick's misanthropic worldview in Wonderful World (2009).  In Goodbye Solo (2009), a Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) works hard to talk a depressed old man (Red West) out of ending his life.  The film was promoted with the line, "Two men form an unlikely friendship that will change both of their lives forever."


    None of those films were accused of being racist.  The Visitor shows Jenkins' well-to-do academician being moved by a dark-skinned immigrant's musical ability.  No critic complained that the immigrant was a performing monkey teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down.'  In 2008, John Anderson of Variety called The Visitor "this year's humanistic indie hit."  It is possible that The Intouchables was viciously attacked only because of its great commercial success. 


    Film critics who are politically correct hate films in which a black person helps a white person because this is a "Magic Negro" film and, even more, they hate films in which a white person helps a black person because this is a "White Savior" film.  Kim wrote, "White Savior films are also meant to show how much the (probably white) filmmakers like brown people by showing how much they want to help them, but this often makes it seem that what brown people really need to improve their lives is for the right benevolent white person to come along."  It hardly makes it worth it for filmmakers to integrate the races in films.

    The portrayal of a group is wrong if it dehumanizes the group and makes it easy for others to disregard the group's interests.  Fathers rights groups protest the "dumb dad" television commercials because they desensitize people to men trying to maintain a vital role in their children's lives after divorce.


    The History Channel's recent mini-series Hatfields & McCoys was designed to explode myths perpetuated by films and newspapers about the notorious Appalachian feud.  Lisa Alther wrote in "Blood Feud": "The hillbilly stereotype spawned by the Hatfield-McCoy feud - of an uncouth bearded bumpkin in a slouch hat and overalls, holding a rifle in one hand and a jug of moonshine in the other - in part justified the exploitation of coal miners and lumberman in the southern Appalachians and the destruction of their environment."  Alther believed it was because Americans had come to regard the residents of the Appalachians as brutal savages that they had little concern when those people were later starved and maimed.

    Driss might be uncouth, but that in no way means he is bumpkin.  He may hold a bag of M & M's in one hand and a marijuana joint in the other, but that in no way makes him a savage.  The character of Driss is well-drawn and the filmmakers make sure to humanize him.  Just as important, Philippe never treats Driss as if he is serving in a subordinate capacity.  The two men are genuine friends who do their best to help one another.  I do not find in any way that The Intouchables diminishes the social standing of black people or expresses racist sentiments.


    Other thoughts

    Rescuing a person who is trying to drown themselves has caused problems for a number of comedians, including Laurel & Hardy (Come Clean, 1931) and Abbott & Costello (Lost in Alaska, 1952).


    Charlie Chaplin reverses the premise of Boudu in City Lights (1931) when his beloved tramp character stops an unruly, drunken millionaire from drowning himself.  Still, as in Boudu, the tramp is welcomed into the rich man's mansion.  Chaplin, much like Murphy in Trading Places (1983), adapts quickly to his new surroundings.



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  • 06/27/12--11:26: Video Problems Corrected


  • Technical issues prevented site visitors from playing video clips on recent articles.  The problem has been corrected.  I apologize for the inconvenience.


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    The following routine from Abbott & Costello's The Naughty Nineties (1945) is one of my all-time favorites.  


    The routine was performed eight years earlier by Louise Fazenda in the Warner Brothers musical Ready, Willing and Able (1937).



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  • 07/23/12--09:10: More Gorilla Fun

  • This still is from The Gorilla (1927), the film which started all that nonsense about gorillas rooming in haunted houses.  The gorilla's friends are Fred Kelsey and Charles Murray.



    Murray returned to a man in an ape suit for laughs in The Cohens and Kellys in Africa (1931).


    Lloyd Hamilton meets up with a gorilla.


    A gorilla is not guaranteed a part in a haunted house comedy.  Here is a gorilla screen test.


     Gorilla comedy was played out by this time.



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    Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) was released shortly before a new wave of horror was to be ushered in by films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).  But this film proves to me that the essential elements of the old horror films carried over into the new wave.  Basically, all that happens in the film is that two young couples traveling through an unfamiliar countryside stop at a sinister home and are attacked by the home's bloodthirsty occupants.  That is pretty much the same as what happens in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The one minor difference is that the latter film includes an extra traveler - the amusingly whiny, wheelchair-bound Franklin.  Still, the one clear change made by Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper was the abandonment of fangs (and the supernatural lore that came with it) in favor of knife blades wielded by savage backwoods psychopaths.  Even some specific details of the films are similar.  In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, it is one of male travelers who is the first one to be killed.  Dracula's henchman emerges suddenly from a doorway and stabs the man in the back with a knife.  Fangs weren't even necessary to dispatch the victim in this case.

     
     
     

    In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is one of male travelers who is the first one to be killed.  Leatherface emerges suddenly from a doorway and slams the man in the head with a mallet. 

     

    The similarities continue.  Dracula's henchman hangs up his victim, slices open his neck, and lets him bleed out.
     

    Leatherface hangs one of his victims from a meat hook and lets her bleed out. 


    In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, the second male traveler snoops around and finds the body of one of his friends stuffed in a wooden chest.

     
     
     

    In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the second male traveler snoops around and finds the body of one of his friends stuffed in a freezer chest.

     
     

    In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a female traveler rises up after death due to vampirism.  In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a female traveler rises up after death due to an involuntary muscle spasm.  At least I think it's an involuntary muscle spasm.  From what I can tell, it could just as likely be that she is still alive and is convulsing as part of her death throes.  In either case, the scene looks very much like a resurrection scene in a vampire film.

     
     

    David Kalat recently observed that David Fincher's new-style horror film Se7en (1995) shares many plot elements with old-style horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).  Click here for the article.  The successful filmmaker is the filmmaker who can make something old seem like something new. The point just as easily could be made that Jason Voorhees is the Frankenstein monster with a machete and Romero's zombies are Lugosi's zombies with a voracious appetite for human flesh.  No matter what new tricks that a filmmaker has to offer, horror films will always be about the beastly creature leaping out of the shadows to attack an unsuspecting victim.


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    The great British comedian Eric Sykes died this month.  Early in his career, Sykes developed a reputation for taking a simple idea and building it up into an uproarious routine.  A popular routine attributed to Sykes involved the comedian getting his big toe stuck in a bathtub spout.  He introduced this comic business on a 1961 Sykes and a. . . episode called "Sykes and a Bath."


    American audiences are more familiar with a version of this routine enacted on a 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "Never Bathe on Saturday." 


    The clip shows a decidedly different take on the routine.  The routine now takes on sexual overtones as it is a fair young woman, Mary Tyler Moore, who gets her toe stuck in the tap.  Series writer Sam Denoff said, "[D]uring the whole episode, people in America were fantasizing seeing Laura Petrie naked in sudsy water in a bathtub!"


    The routine was later revived for a 1972 segment of Love American Style called "Love and the Bathtub."  Unlike Moore, who was kept off camera for most of her tub time, larger-than-life sex symbol Julie Newmar is kept front and center while zany plumber Charlie Callas struggles to free her toe.  Callas derails the routine by randomly launching into his nightclub act.  He makes a lot of funny noises, twists and stretches his facial muscles in unnatural ways, and performs a grating impersonation of Cary Grant.  In the end, though, it is impossible for Callas to distract attention from the leggy Newmar.  It is clear now that the silly "man with his big toe stuck in the bathtub spout" routine has fully evolved into the steamy "naked lady in the sudsy bath" routine.


    In 1976, Sykes remade the routine for an episode of Sykes called "Bath."  The aging comedian, though less sexy now sitting in a tub of water than he had been fifteen years earlier, proved to be as funny as ever.


    Recently, a homage of the old routine was presented in an iCarly episode called "iToe Fat Cakes."


    Modesty proves to be less relevant in the end.  Carly is unwilling to bail on her first date with a boy named Lance and decides to have dinner with Lance while still trapped in the bathtub.  She expresses no embarrassment that she is wearing nothing except a soggy shirt and goes as far as kissing Lance before dinner is finished.  Bringing the routine into the modern era apart from the naked first date is the fact that plumber cuts Carly free with a noisy, blazing power saw instead of a hacksaw.


    It should be noted, though, the Sykes' original routine was not without a suggestion of sex.

     
    Sykes, a master of physical comedy, will be missed.  For insight into his comedy mind, I present a clip in which Sykes expresses his view on the ideal version of the slipping-on-a-banana-peel routine.



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    It may not be as epic as The Hunger Games trilogy or the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, but I am proud to announce that my silent film comedy trilogy is complete with my latest book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.


    For three decades, hundreds of actors delivered a steady stream of pranks and pratfalls for the amusement of silent film fans.  While film historians have focused their attention on the three biggest comedy stars (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd), numerous comedians of less renown have been unjustly forgotten.  But, now, eighteen uniquely talented comedians overlooked for many years finally receive the recognition they deserve.  Discussed at length are the methods and skills that made these performers stand out. This includes the subtle expressiveness of Lloyd Hamilton, the goofy acrobatics of Clyde Cook, the playful irreverence of Hank Mann, the wicked brazenness of Billie Ritchie, and the destructive buffoonery of André Deed.  Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film is presented as both a loving tribute and a thoughtful analysis of a delightfully special group of artists.


    Among the illustrious Eighteen are the following: André Deed, Max Linder, Marcel Perez, Baby Peggy, Big Boy, Billie Ritchie, Billy Dooley, Hank Mann, Lloyd Hamilton, Lige Conley, Al St. John, Clyde Cook, Lupino Lane, Larry Semon, Colleen Moore, Dorothy Devore, Edgar Kennedy and Andy Clyde.



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  • 09/05/12--14:27: Happy Art


  • I am grateful to Henly Sukandra for designing and illustrating the cover of Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  Henly is a talented artist who believes in the power of a smile.  He calls his artwork "Happy Art."  He wrote, "When we smile despite experiencing many difficulties, it will make us stronger to face this tough life.  When we smile, we believe that hope is there.  My art is, very simply, just to be enjoyed.  I hope my art will brighten the hearts of everyone who sees it and bring a person (at least) a smile!"

    Here is the original layout of the cover.



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    Stan Laurel starred in nearly five dozen films before teaming with Oliver Hardy in 1927.  Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur examine these films in depth in a new book, Stan Without Ollie: Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927

    I must admit that, as great as think Stan Laurel is, I have generally found his solo work to be erratic and unfocused.  His style and characterizations vary wildly from film to film (and sometimes within a single film).  His performance can be subtle and patient in one outing and then frantic and exaggerated in the next.  But this book places these films into a clear context and brings into focus the performer's gradual development into the comedy legend that we know today.

    Okuda and Neibaur, who have been writing film history books since the 1980s, are trustworthy guides.  Their last collaboration, The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic, has remained for many years the most valuable book available on Lewis' work.  It is good to see these authors come together again on another worthwhile project.


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    I have a good deal of respect for Jordan Young, an entertainment historian whose books include "Spike Jones Off the Record," "Reel Characters" and "The Laugh Crafters," and I could not be more pleased to have Mr. Young review my latest film comedy book.  The review can be found here.


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    The famous "pellet with the poison" routine from The Court Jester (1956) actually comes from an old vaudeville routine.  Variations of the routine turned up in films years before The Court Jester.  Let's take a look at the Court Jester routine and its precedents.
     

    The Court Jester (1956)



    Roman Scandals (1933)



    Never Say Die (1939)



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    I have commented in the past about the creative efforts of Cartoon Network's Adventure Time to introduce classic comedy routines to a younger audience.  A recent episode of Adventure Time, "Ignition Point," featured variations of two popular Commedia dell'arte routines - “Lazzi of the Statue” and “Lazzi of the Sack.”  The "Lazzi of the Statue" routine involves a man pretending to be a statue.  This routine was performed in countless silent films.  It is not known for certain when the routine was first recorded on film, but it is very possible that the routine made its screen debut with Alice Guy Blache's The Statue (1905).  

    Excerpt from The Statue


    Adventure Time updates this routine with an imaginative flair. Jake's fantastic stretching powers comes into use as Finn and Jake pretend to be a painting.

     

    The “Lazzi of the Sack” routine involves a man who conceals himself in a cloth sack without realizing that he is taking the place of a pig due to be slaughtered.  As it turns out, the man must struggle to free himself from the sack before he is set upon by a cleaver-wielding butcher.  Adventure Time presents a pork-free version of the routine.  Finn and Jake, who have a blue hue due to a flame-proofing spell, blend in well when they fall into a crate of blueberries.  Unfortunately, though, a baker assumes that the pair are oversized blueberries and promptly chases after them with a handy cleaver. 

     

    As can be seen in the next screen capture, Finn wears one of the Commedia dell'arte's "zanni" masks at one point in the episode.
      

    The final routine of the episode has its origins in a different source than the Commedia dell'arte.  Finn and Jake learn of a plot to kill the Flame King and are determined to root out the conspirators before they can execute their evil plan.  Our heroes join a theatrical troupe intending to dramatize the murder plot on stage and thereby provoke a reaction from the would-be king-killers.  This idea was borrowed directly from Hamlet, but it might also remind comedy fans of a plan to expose a murderous Nazi spy in Abbott & Costello's Who Done It? (1942).  The eternal question "To be or not to be?" meets the eternal question "Who's on First?" 


    But, as I watched the climax of "Ignition Point," I didn't think of Hamlet or Who Done It? as much as I thought of Wonder Man (1945), a comedy in which Danny Kaye takes part in an opera to expose a murderer to a district attorney seated in a theater box.  


    Wonder Man




    Adventure Time


    I find it comforting that a number of classic comedy routines have survived into the 21st century.  Another classic routine, this one involving a man struggling clumsily to carry an unconscious woman, was recently revived by Two and a Half Men.  This is Buster Keaton performing the routine in Spite Marriage (1929). 


    Now comes the new version, which essentially substitutes gracefulness with smuttiness.  I feel compelled to note that, despite his "tiger blood," Charlie Sheen needed help from Jon Cryer to carry his unconscious woman (Diora Baird).  I thank my brother, Francis, for bringing this episode of Two and a Half Men to my attention.


    In the last hundred years, a variety of ferocious beasts and deadly monsters have been on the prowl to bring ruin and chaos to film and television weddings.  The origins of this silly business are detailed in The Funny Parts.  Recent examples of this trope include a wedding sent into disarray by prehistoric wolves in a 2011 episode of Primeval and a wedding brought to a bloody end by zombies in REC 3: Genesis (2012).  Here is a clip from Primeval.  


    It is hard to fully understand the psychology of a popular routine and the reason that people feel compelled to come back to the routine again and again.  What would Bruno Bettelheim say was the hidden meaning of this comic fairy tale?  He might say that a great deal of fear and anxiety lies beneath the order and formality of a wedding and these monsters and beasts represent this undercurrent of dark emotions suddenly breaking loose.  In any case, I doubt we have seen the last of these wedding disasters.

    Let me end this article by letting you know that I have added film clips to a few of my previous articles.

    http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2011/12/if-i-could-walk-that-way-i-would-not.html
    http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2011/08/hat-mix-up-routine.html
    http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2012/04/boomerang-hat-trick.html

    That's it for today. I thank you all for coming by.


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     My latest book (and second novel) is Slaughterhouse Frome, a seriocomic science fiction story about a stressed expectant father who suddenly suffers a break from reality and imagines himself to be a futuristic warrior fighting in a cosmic war. 

    Your response to this announcement might very well be, "Didn't this guy just announce the release of a book?"  Scrupulous time management and great (perhaps excessive) perseverance kept me going in the last three years while I worked to simultaneously complete three books - The Funny Parts, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film and Slaughterhouse Frome.  For my purposes, multitasking has its benefits.  Whenever I needed to step back and take a breather from one project, I was able to conveniently redirect my attention to one of my other projects.

    I was allowed by my Frome novel, which explores the subjects of marriage, parenting and intergalactic travel, to let loose my creative energies and express sentiments and ideas of a more personal nature.  The objective assembly of facts for a biography or the identification of a film's essential features for a film analysis book is somewhat different than a novel, which must be crafted out of the author's own experiences and fantasies.  It is for this reason that I feel more exposed and vulnerable to be presenting this work to the public.  But bravery is a requirement of an author as much as, if not more, than the ability to turn a phrase.  I hope that the people who read Slaughterhouse Frome find it enjoyable.


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