Articles on this Page
- 09/26/15--11:25: _Live Long and Prosper
- 09/29/15--14:48: _The First Known Pie...
- 10/11/15--19:34: _Book Review: "The G...
- 10/11/15--20:29: _The Rise of the Com...
- 10/12/15--07:45: _The Rise of the Com...
- 10/12/15--09:04: _The Rise of the Com...
- 10/12/15--15:21: _The Rise of the Com...
- 10/16/15--12:56: _Another Look Up Ski...
- 10/30/15--06:31: _Man With A Computer
- 10/30/15--06:45: _The Mirror Routine Ban
- 10/30/15--07:10: _F. Gwynplaine MacIn...
- 10/30/15--07:36: _Saucy Sue, Rebellio...
- 11/28/15--12:22: _Old News is Good News
- 11/28/15--13:03: _Book Review: Pamela...
- 11/28/15--14:30: _Book Review: "The C...
- 11/29/15--06:37: _Manic Pixie Pain in...
- 11/29/15--06:59: _The Team of André D...
- 11/29/15--10:09: _Fred Stone Rises to...
- 11/29/15--12:57: _Charles Kenna: The ...
- 12/06/15--10:00: _Man-Child Week on A...
- 09/26/15--11:25: Live Long and Prosper
- 09/29/15--14:48: The First Known Pie-in-the-Face Gag
- 10/11/15--20:29: The Rise of the Comedy Feature: Introduction
- 10/12/15--07:45: The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 1: The Demi-Clowns of 1915
- 10/12/15--09:04: The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 2: The Year of the Ladies
- 10/12/15--15:21: The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 3: Skirts (1921)
- 10/16/15--12:56: Another Look Up Skirts
- 10/30/15--06:31: Man With A Computer
- 10/30/15--06:45: The Mirror Routine Ban
- 10/30/15--07:10: F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre Writes About Dan Leno
- 10/30/15--07:36: Saucy Sue, Rebellious Betty and Other Examples of the Women-Child
- 11/28/15--12:22: Old News is Good News
- 11/28/15--13:03: Book Review: Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974 (McFarland)
- 11/29/15--06:37: Manic Pixie Pain in My Ass
- 11/29/15--06:59: The Team of André Deed and Max Linder
- 11/29/15--10:09: Fred Stone Rises to Great Heights
- 11/29/15--12:57: Charles Kenna: The Street Fakir
- 12/06/15--10:00: Man-Child Week on Anthony Balducci’s Journal
In an interview with Radio Times, Star Trek actor Simon Pegg had harsh words for adults obsessed with comic book films. He said, "[W]e're essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously. It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about. . . whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot." This was a real life reprise of William Shatner's "Get a Life!" speech from Saturday Night Live.
I wrestled with the man-child issue while writing my new book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present. I could maybe accept a 35-year-old man running around Comic-Con dressed as Captain America. But it is about more than a bunch of adults letting off steam at an annual costume party. The fact is that, in all likelihood, you could talk to the man in the Captain America costume and find out that he devoted countless hours to the fabrication of his costume. Comic books have gone from being a diversion to being an obsession. That can't be good.
An author who commits to a discussion of the man-child trend will inevitably find himself engaged in either a passionate defense or an absolute condemnation of the man-child. It is the type of controversy that doesn’t allow moderate feelings. But, still, I resisted the urge to turn my book into a polemic. I have seen other authors go down that path and the works that they turned out were more angry than astute. I did not want to be what author Jason Kotecki has called the "harrumphing codger," but I also didn't want to be an advocate of irresponsible man-child behavior. So, I found a balance between the two points of views. I wanted to leave it to the readers to absorb the book's facts, observations and insights and come to their own conclusions about the man-child and, of course, his value to film comedy.
Pegg found a niche playing childish characters while he was working in British television in the 1990s. He starred in the sitcom Spaced as quintessential man-child Tim Bisley. Wikipedia describes the Bisley character as follows: "Tim, rarely seen without his skateboard, his Chocolate beanie, or his PlayStation controller, is an aspiring comic book artist, amateur skateboarder, and passionate follower of cult fiction in many forms, including video games, science fiction, and especially - at least initially - the original Star Wars trilogy.” Pegg wrote of Tim, "[H]e channeled his childhood passions into his adult life, cared about them as much, invested in them, the same level of time, importance and emotion. His hobbies and interests defined who he was, rather than his professional status."
It is at times hard to determine if a filmmaker is celebrating the man-child or mocking him. Pegg has explored the man-child for nearly twenty years. This has, without question, been a long journey. In his various films and television series, the actor has highlighted the man-child's strengths alongside his weaknesses. Evidently, the journey has finally ended and Pegg has come to his grim and inexorable conclusion.
The mobs of man-children on the Internet are not the sort of people who see benefit in contemplating criticism. They are highly protective of their way of life and they will react strongly against those who speak against them. So, they did not react well to Pegg's comments. They had a collective tantrum that lasted for days. It surprised me, though, that many of the people who became defensive over Pegg's remarks expressed fear and despair rather than rage. They justified their childish obsessions by admitting to being overwhelmed by the world. They see the world as a nightmare beyond repair and they cannot figure any other way to cope. It makes the man-child more sympathetic to know that their infantile condition doesn’t come so much from pleasure-seeking and narcissism as it comes from distress.
Pegg acknowledged the fear and despair. He wrote in his response to the uproar, "It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read."
Mass media has the habit of laying the world's problems on our doorstep. It can be unbearable to an individual to be forced on a daily basis to confront the problems of 196 nations. We would be more effective and more content to focus on just the problems of our immediate community. But the constant bombardment of global ills has put our perception and cognition into a disordered state. We, as a society, have made overanxious by the media, which has caused us to be hyper-aware of the world at large and has amplified the world's many, many problems. It no wonder that a young person who is hooked up to a continuous Internet feed wants to run away and hide.
Still, I cannot help but become a harrumphing codger at times. I harrumphed a great deal when I learned about cosplay porn. Is sexual relations so frightening and unpleasant that young people can't cope with sex without dressing up in a costume or seeing others dress up in costumes? Again, this is about more than dress up games. Sex is empty when intimacy and openness is replaced by lycra and spangles, but maybe the point is to avoid intimacy and openness. After all, this can only lead to messy situations. A couple that gets intimate usually finds themselves up to their necks in dirty diapers, pablum and vomit. I have heard about (but have not confirmed) a subgenre of cosplay called genderplay crossplay. As I understand it, this involves a man dressing up as a female character and a female dressing up as a male character. The couple presents this demented parody as a rejection of traditional gender roles. It is just stupid, weird, and unhealthy. Sex doesn't mean much if it's nothing more than a game or a parody.
It has become difficult to sort out this touchy issue. Conflict is inevitable whenever a man attempts to balance work and play. It is the epic Freudian battle of the id and the super-ego. I could never overlook the benefits of child's play. Kotecki sees it as beneficial for a man to retain his childlike enthusiasm and optimism. He believes that an adult needs to have fun to relieve stress and, more important, he believes that an adult can have fun without being irresponsible. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), Pegg's Shaun learns to be a mature partner to his girlfriend, but he still steals away on occasion to play a video game with an old zombie friend.
Pegg performed the same slipping-on-fluid gag in all three films of his Cornetto Trilogy. Click here to see.
Peter Reitan, author of the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, has written extensively about the origins of the "slipping on a banana peel" gag.
Mr. Reitan has now moved his attention to the "pie in the face" gag" and he asked me for specific information on the gag's origins. When I wrote The Funny Parts, I found a number of sources that credited Weber and Fields with inventing the pie-in-the-face gag. As I recall, one of those sources was Matthew Kennedy's Marie Dressler biography. But details on this subject were not something that turned up in my research. Fortunately, online reference sources have expanded greatly in the last few years. So, now, I can explain the exact origins of the gag.
In 1898, the Broadway theatre turned out a popular melodrama called "The Conquerors." A particularly memorable scene in the play involved a smug Prussian officer dining with a French maiden. The officer attempts to force himself on the maiden, which causes her to throw wine in his face. Weber and Field spoofed the scene in a sketch they called "The Con-Curers." This time, the maiden smashes a thick and gooey custard pie into the officer's face. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Reitan's research has also turned up an early car chase film, Trials and Troubles of an Automobilist. The film was produced in 1904 by Paley and Steiner, who marketed their titles under the name Crescent Films. The story involves a motorist whose reckless driving causes his vehicle to knock over an apple cart. The apple seller chases the car to get his hands on the motorist and exert violent retribution. Many others, including comic police officers, join the chase.
Mr. Reitan believes that another Crescent film, Around New York in Fifteen Minutes (1905), may have featured an early example of the "slipping on a banana peel" gag. The film, which presented a tour of Manhattan, included a scene titled "The Shopping District and What a Banana Peel Will Do." A lawsuit filed against Paley and Steiner by Thomas Edison, who claimed that the partners infringed on his motion picture camera patent, promptly put an end to Crescent Films.
I could have called this article "Second from the Left." Despite his many important contributions to classic film comedy, Bruckman was never a readily identifiable figure on the rare occasion that he turned up in a behind-the-scenes Hollywood photo. He was never the person that the cameraman deliberately arranged to have in the center of the image. Let's take the photo below. There he is, just as I said, second from the left. He is, as usual, unassuming and anonymous.
This book puts Bruckman in the center of the frame for once. Yes, here we have him.
Film historians have written before about Bruckman's work with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges, but Dessem tells tales of Bruckman's experiences with lesser known comedians. He explains how a speeding ticket set into motion a series of incidents that derailed Monty Banks' career. He details the failed efforts to establish Wheeler & Woolsey's Robert Woolsey as a solo comedian. He provides a fascinating account of the way that Sennett's scenario department carefully developed scenes for Ralph Graves.
The highlight of the book is Dessem's account of the legal battles that Harold Lloyd waged against Bruckman over copyright infringement. Lloyd learned the hard way that suing an old friend to protect your ownership of an old gag can prove to be nothing but a ruinous folly. This chapter is required reading for fans of film comedy history and students of artists rights. Rule number one for comedians and comedy writers is that comedy is a creative commons. Comedy routines develop in the same way that games develop on school playgrounds. Comedy thrives from the freedom of play. The process would have been destroyed a long time ago, which means that most classic comedy routines would been lost, if the courts had at any time introduced widespread legal restrictions.
This is great work from Mr. Dessem. I recommend you purchase the book.
On October 23, Open Road Films will release a new Bill Murray comedy, Rock the Kasbah. This is yet one in thousands of comedy features that have been released in the United States during the course of film history.
The feature film comedy had its 100th anniversary last year. Just as anything else in our lives that is overly familiar, it is easy for us to take the comedy feature for granted. It is normal for a person to see this form of entertainment as something that has always been around and always will be around. But a comprehensive examination into the origins of the comedy feature will reveal the awkward struggle that filmmakers had in introducing the long-form comedy film to the marketplace.
Join me tomorrow for the start of a three-part article on the rise of the comedy feature.
I mentioned in a recent post that Peter Reitan has written an excellent series of articles on the pie-in-the-face gag. His latest article has special significance in that it provides a photo of the first Pie-in-the-Face Recipient and a photo of the first Pie-in-the-Face Thrower. I advise you read the article at http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2015/09/homelessness-hunger-and-domestic.html.
I will close today with a few magazine clippings.
|Lloyd Hamilton lunches with a faux Teddy Roosevelt in The Movies (1925).|
|A wife and husband (Billie Rhodes and Smiling Billy Parson) sleep in separate beds in Bill's Predicament (1918).|
|Hank Mann struggles to rescue Madge Kirby from the electric chair in Mystic Mush (1920).|
|Hugh Fay and Neely Edwards get into the spirit-summoning business in the Hall Room Boys comedy Tell Us, Ouija! (1920).|
|Here is more action from Tell Us, Ouija! (1920).|
|George B. French, Eddie Barry, Harry L. Rattenberry and Billie Rhodes in the Christie comedy Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1916)|
It is widely believed that Keystone's Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) was the first feature-length comedy film. This is not exactly true. More knowledgeable silent film enthusiasts have tried to make a finer and more accurate distinction by calling the film the first feature-length slapstick comedy. Wikipedia plays it entirely safe by calling this melodrama spoof "the first feature-length film produced by the Keystone film company."
|Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Edgar Kennedy in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).|
The next comedy feature prominent on comedy fans' radar is Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918), but many comedy features were produced between Tillie's Punctured Romance and Shoulder Arms. A surge in comedy features occurred in the months that followed the release of Tillie's Punctured Romance, but not a single studio rushed forward to replicate the rough-and-tumble formula of the Keystone farce. Sennett, himself, did not attempt another film like this for more than four years.
The comedy feature films of the period mostly involved romantic couples hopelessly entangled in farcical complications. Among these films were Mrs. Plum's Pudding, The Tale of the Night Before and Over Night. Let’s take, for instance, the plot of Over Night. Two couples are boarding a steamboat to Albany when one of the women realizes that she left a piece of luggage on the dock. In the ensuing effort to retrieve the woman's luggage, the husband of one couple and the wife of the other couple get separated from their respective mates. At the close of the scene, they find themselves stranded on the dock as the ship sails away without them. Their shipbound spouses pose as husband and wife throughout their voyage to avoid a scandal. Complications build upon complications. Wikipedia summarizes the last act of the film as follows: "When the boat docks, [the couple learns] that the last train left. Forced to spend the night in the hotel, they continue in their fiction. The next morning, arriving at Albany, they are shocked to see the other couple posing as newlyweds as they stroll hand in hand through the hotel lobby. The catch, however, is easily explained and the two couples, finally reunited, are recomposed."
No one slipped on a banana peel at any point in the story. The filmmakers preferred comic complications over comic bits. The situations, no matter how restrained, still retained a decidedly humorous flavor. Can we fairly distinguish between pure comedy, as Tillie’s Punctured Romance might be described, and pratfall-free quasi-comedy, as Over Night might be described, and then separate the two into distinctively different categories?
In 1915, Moving Picture World reported, "John Barrymore will gladden the hearts of the many film followers in an indescribably funny picturization of Leo Ditrichstein's celebrated farce, Are You a Mason?" The American Film Institute described the plot of Are You a Mason? as follows:
While his wife Helen is away visiting her mother, Frank Perry [Barrymore] is nearly arrested when he accidentally enters the wrong house after a night of drinking at his New York club. When Helen returns, Frank tries to pretend that the incident was an initiation rite of the Masons, a society to which his wife has always wanted him to belong. When Helen comes home, she is accompanied by her father who also has pretended to be a Mason for years. Each man acts out supposedly secret Masonic rituals while the other imitates him. After a variety of misadventures, including blackmail, Frank is allowed to join the Masons by Bob Trevors, a real member who wants to marry Helen's sister Nora.As most feature-length comedies of the period, Are You a Mason? was adapted from a Broadway play. Film studios recognized that Broadway farces provided proven stories and characters for the new long-form comedies. Of course, the farces were accompanied by the farceurs.
|Alonzo Price, John Barrymore and Henry Hull in the play "Believe Me Xantippe" (1913).|
Walter Kerr had a name for the light comedy actors. He called them "demi-clowns" because they were too normal to be regarded as full-fledged clowns.
|Clown v Demi-clown: W. C. Fields and John Barrymore|
As long as we are talking about film adaptations of Broadway plays, it should be noted that Tillie's Punctured Romance was based on the Broadway play "Tillie's Nightmare," which starred the incomparably talented Marie Dressler. It was inevitable that Dressler would be called upon to recreate her stage role for the film adaptation. The opening scene of the film explicitly shows Dressler making a transition from the story's original stage setting to its new film setting.
In 1915, Douglas Fairbanks made a highly successful film debut in The Lamb, an adventure comedy in which a dangerous situation motivates a weak-willed mama's boy to release his inner grit. By the final reel, Fairbanks has completed a dynamic transformation into an undeniably masculine hero. This film belongs to the same lineage as Keaton and Lloyd's features. Keaton in fact remade The Lamb as his first feature film, The Saphead (1920). Both Keaton and Lloyd later used key elements of the Lamb’s engaging formula to generate their most successful features, including Girl Shy (1924), The Navigator (1924), The Kid Brother (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).
In considering these facts, it may not be fair to call Fairbanks a demi-clown. Fairbanks could be as playful as Chaplin. . .
he could be as unexpected as Keaton. . .
and he could be as resourceful as Lloyd.
The other actors who starred in feature-length comedies this year were mostly like Fairbanks and Barrymore. They were handsome and gracious men who didn't take pratfalls. They had sidekicks to do that.
"The Galloper," Richard Harding Davis’ 1906 Broadway farce, was adapted into a feature film by Pathé Exchange. The lead role was played by Clifton Crawford, a Scottish actor who first became popular singing and telling jokes in English music halls. Crawford was best known for introducing the song "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag" in the Broadway musical "Her Soldier Boy." The Galloper film, like the play, used the 1897 Greco-Turkish War as a backdrop. A young American millionaire impersonates a disreputable war correspondent to travel into the war zone and meet up with a beautiful Red Cross nurse that he encountered in his recent travels. Again, complications build upon complications. To start, the nurse is not really a nurse. She lied her way into the war zone to dig up a hidden treasure. Also, Greek military officials are looking to execute the journalist for his unfavorable reporting. The filmmakers added a funny Turkish spy to the story to bring a bit of broad comedy to the proceedings.
The Moving Picture World praised Crawford for his "brilliant work." The magazine added, "Clifton Crawford proves himself to be an artist of the first rank."
|Crawford abandons a hunting trip to Africa to follow a nurse to a war front in Athens.|
Take note, Bush described the film as "pure comedy." Let us take a look at the plot to make sure. A young college graduate, Edward Swinger (Eugene O'Brien), is intent on marrying Caroline Pickering (Marie Wells), but her rich businessman father Septimus Pickering (Ben Hendricks) doesn't see Edward as being worthy to marry his daughter. Pickering, who has established a pickle empire, has developed a large ego in his rise to the top. He now takes great pride being known in the business world as "The Pickle King." During a visit to Pickering’s office, Edward meets Mrs. Jones, who worked as a housekeeper at his old boarding house. Mrs. Jones has failed in an effort to sell Pickering on her special brand of pickles. Edward figures to make an impression on Pickering by using Mrs. Jones’ recipe to launch a rival pickle company. He invests the only money that he has on making a showy presentation of his proposed Bingo Pickle Company at the Pure Food Exposition. He gets attention by having models dressed in beautiful costumes parade on the exposition floor. Pickering becomes so worried that Edward will lure his customers away from him that he agrees, on the spot, to buy out the young man’s interest in Bingo Pickle. Film historian Jim Beaver aptly summarized the film's plot on the Internet Movie Database: "Edward Swinger contrives to win the hand of the lovely Caroline Pickering by selling her father his business - a business that doesn't actually exist." That plot is, indeed, pure comedy.
|Gertrude Kellar, Sydney Deane, Wallace Eddinger and Carol Hollaway in Gentleman of Leisure (1915).|
Broadway veteran Wallace Eddinger took the lead role in A Gentleman of Leisure, an adaptation of a P. G. Wodehouse novel produced by Jesse Lasky. The essential plot is similar to the plot of Just Out of College. A young millionaire, Robert Edgar Willoughby Pitt (Eddinger), finds himself charmed by the lovely Molly Creedon (Carol Hollaway), who is the daughter of Deputy Police Commissioner Phillip "Big Phil" Creedon (Frederick Montague). Pitt figures to earn the man’s respect by outwitting him with a bold criminal endeavor. He goes on to wager a friend that he can rob the police commissioner’s house without being arrested. Along the way, he gets help from a professional burglar, Spike Mulligan (Billy Elmer). The Spike character is able to furnish the rougher comedy. The Pit role was previously played on stage by Fairbanks (New York's Playhouse Theatre, 1911) and Barrymore (Chicago’s McVicker's Theatre, 1913).
|Frank Daniels as Abel Conn in the play "The Idol's Eye" (1897).|
Daniels quickly followed up Crooky with a second feature, What Happened to Father? (1915). Daniels had been retired from acting when Vitagraph persuaded him to star in Crooky. After making two feature films, the veteran actor abandoned the rigors of feature films and settled into making a series of short comedies. He returned to the pleasure and serenity of retirement in 1919.
|A retired Frank Daniels in 1933.|
The Lasky Company made a special effort to promote Moore's debut outing, Snobs. The plot pointed to the difficulties that a man can have rising up from middle class to upper class. The film opens in the law offices of Mr. Phipps (Ernest Joy). Phipps is gloomy because his business is on the verge of bankruptcy. He sees no way out of his financial straits until he learns that a milkman, Henry Disney (Victor Moore), is heir to the title and fortune of the late Duke of Walshire. The lawyer arranges for his sister to seduce Disney, but it isn't long before Disney realizes that the young woman is only interested in his money. Unfortunately, she is not the only one who pretends to like Disney in the hope of attaining a monetary benefit. According to the American Film Institute catalog, "the social snobs. . . . fawn at him but mock him behind his back." Disney gets fed up with his rapacious admirers. Erickson wrote, "[I]n the film's dramatic highlight, [Disney] tells off an assemblage of aristocrats at a fancy-dress ball." A critic with the Lompoc Journal reacted enthusiastically to Moore's performance. He reported, "Moore, fortunately, has just the kind of expressive face and rollicking personality which surely ‘goes over’. . . He can’t exactly be compared with any comedian now on the screen. He sets a new style — and doubtless be paid the tribute of having many imitators. . . [H]e is so full of humor and ‘snap’ combined." For all of his snap, Moore took no pratfalls throughout the story and the reviews indicate that the best parts of his performance came out of his dramatic moments in the film.
Moore's next film, Chimmie Fadden, was also well-received. Moore’s title character, Chimmie Fadden, is a good-hearted Irish immigrant. Fritzi Kramer, the author of the Movies Silently blog, wrote, "Chimmie rescues a rich do-gooder from a Bowery masher and is engaged as a footman in her house. However, Chimmie’s brother has conspired with another servant to relieve the rich lady of her silver. Chimmie must save his brother – and himself - when he is accused of the robbery! DeMille and Moore made sure that Chimmie was funny but not slapstick. . . Chimmie Fadden received excellent reviews, with Moore in particular receiving praise for his funny and touching performance."
Joe Welch was an acclaimed stage comedian who specialized in playing downtrodden Jewish merchants. His gloomy catchphrase was "I vish dot I vas dead!" Welch had come to bring poignancy to his merchant character after he moved from vaudeville to the Broadway stage, where he starred in "The Peddler" and "The Shoemaker." In 1915, Welch was contracted to star in a six-reel feature called Time Lock No. 776 (originally titled Going Big). The film provided no hint of comedy whatsoever. The actor, with all of his funny quirks, had been subsumed by the drama. It seemed inevitable at the time that the comedy aspects of Welch’s sympathetic merchant would be diluted by the dramatic elements that were required to develop a long-form story. It took Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd to figure a way to build a credible, meaningful and affecting story around a clown character without losing sight of the tomfoolery.
As I bring this article to a close, I still cannot say for sure that Chimmie Fadden belongs in the same category as Steamboat Bill Jr. But Chimmie Fadden was undoubtedly a comedy film and its genial star, Mr. Moore, was nothing less than a comedian. Moore proved for decades that he had no problem making an audience laugh.
|William Gaxton and Victor Moore in Leave It to Me! (1938).|
It is wrong for film historians, including myself, to leave Chimmie Fadden or Are You a Mason? or The Lamb out of discussions of Hollywood's comedy feature.
|Douglas Fairbanks in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916).|
Entertainment history is filled with sad stories. Clifton Crawford suffered a tragic death only five years after making The Galloper. His death is explained plainly on the Internet Movie Database:
Fell 60 feet to his death from his room at the Queens Hotel in Leicester square. The coroner of Westminster ruled his death accidental, finding no evidence that Crawford was suicidal or drunk, only that he may have been under the influence of a sedative. On his death one reporter wrote, "An evening with Clifton Crawford drove away the little troubles and annoyances of life; and a man that can do that can ill be spared."
We left off in my last article at the end of 1915. Nothing particularly notable happened during the next year. John Barrymore starred in an amnesia comedy called The Lost Bridegroom (1916), after which he left behind comedy business for serious roles. Douglas Fairbanks produced several highly successful comedy features during the year. He produced a new feature nearly every month. The best of these films included Her Picture in the Papers, Reggie Mixes In, Flirting with Fate, Manhattan Madness, American Aristocracy, The Matrimaniac and The Americano. Otherwise, the comedy feature went into a period of inactivity in 1916.
|June Caprice, Frank Morgan in A Modern Cinderella (1917).|
Comedians pratfalled enough in the short films that preceded the features to make it seem excessive to continue with pratfalls in the feature presentation. So, the comedy that turned up in features remained light. The comedy feature of the time was designed to be, as Moving Picture World noted, "a distinct departure from the hackneyed slapstick, pie-throwing, funny-walk type of comedy."
People who went to see these films did not expect a funny, action-packed climax. A light comedy had a polite resolution to mix-ups, revelations and charades. Blushed cheeks would accompany the confession of a secret. A hug or a handshake would resolve a misunderstanding. There were no car chases or tumbles down hills. But, of course, there was a rare exception. The climax of High Speed (1917) was similar to the climax that later turned up in Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy (1924). The American Film Institute describes the scene as follows: "Just as the ceremony is about to take place, Susan [the bride] experiences second thoughts and calls Speed to save her. True to his name, Speed whisks Susan from the altar and carries her away to elope." Bringing Home Father (1917) had an even livelier finale. An alderman candidate who advocates Prohibition secretly enjoys the occasional night of drinking. His wife throws a reception to promote his campaign, but a man who the candidate has wronged spikes the punch, which causes the reception to turn into a drunken melee.
Let us look at a sample of other comedy features that were released in 1917.
The Girl Who Couldn't Grow Up (produced by Mutual Film Company)
Peggy Brockman (Margarita Fischer) finds her idyllic life disrupted when her long-widowed oil magnate father remarries. She struggles to adjust to her new social climber stepmother and her two new snobbish stepsisters.
The Mischief Maker (produced by Fox Film Corporation)
While at boarding school, Effie Marchand (June Caprice) poses for her sculpting teacher. The teacher has only completed his statue's head when he finds himself overcome with lust and attacks Effie. The young woman is able to fight off her teacher before a visitor arrives at the studio and rescues her. The teacher later turns his sculpture of Effie into a nude statute, which causes Effie to get expelled from school and disgraces the young woman with her mother. I will leave it to the American Film Institute to explain the film's denouement:
Effie then begins a romance with Al, and when they get married, Effie's mother takes the wedding as just one more sign of her daughter's impulsiveness. Mrs. Marchand soon finds out, however, that her new son-in-law is the man she had chosen for Effie long before, and so mother and daughter are quickly reconciled.
A Game of Wits (produced by American Film Company)
On the verge of financial ruin, Cyrus Browning (George Periolat) forces his daughter, Jeanette (Gail Kane), into a marriage with Silas Stone, who the American Film Institute describes as "an aged Wall Street wolf." Jeanette is determined to outwit the crafty old man. The American Film Institute notes, "Jeanette pairs her youthful strength against the old man's advanced age. After tiring him out with dances, midnight suppers, swims and horseback riding, Jeanette plays her trump card when she introduces Stone to her brother Larry, the shame of the family because of his insanity which she claims to have inherited as well. Horrified, Stone attempts to steal away but is caught by Larry. Jeanette feigns despair at the loss of his love and threatens to sue for breach of promise." Once Stone pays Jeanette $100,000 to squash the suit, it is revealed that her insane lover is actually her perfectly sane sweetheart.
Miss Deception (produced by Van Dyke Film Production Company)
The American Film Institute summarizes the plot as follows:
When Joyce Kingston [Jean Sothern], who has been living in the Kentucky hills with her Uncle Ed, is summoned to her father's city home, she learns that her high toned family believes that her years of country living have rendered her a hick, and so, not wanting to disappoint them she decides to play the role of a country bumpkin. Although finely educated and a stickler on etiquette in her uncle's home, Joyce pretends to be illiterate and offends everyone with her crudeness. Joyce's antics alienate her father's fortune-hunting fiancée Genevieve, who thinks that Joyce is a barbarian. Believing that Kingston is about to lose his wealth, Genevieve breaks her engagement, and Joyce's happiness is made complete when her sweetheart sees through her bumpkin act and proposes marriage.Little Miss Fortune (produced by Erbograph Company)
Sis (Marion Swayne), a maid at a theatrical boardinghouse, reveals astonishing acting ability as she rehearses lines with a boarder, Jim. The couple fall in love as Jim helps the maid to pursue an acting career.
The Broadway Sport (produced by Fox Film Corporation)
Hezekiah Dill (Stuart Holmes), a milquetoast bookkeeper at a flour mill, dreams of traveling to Times Square. One night, Dill catches a pair of burglars breaking into the company safe. He locks the burglars in the safe and impulsively snatches their loot to finance a trip to the big city. Motion Picture News reported, "Once in sight of Times Square [Dill] catches the spirit of the locality and blossoms into a real sport. In fact, he hits such a hot pace that it is difficult to believe in his experiences." You would be right not to believe in his experiences. As it turns out, the whole big city adventure was a dream. However, Dill wakes up in time to catch real-life burglars breaking into the company safe. He captures the burglars, for which he is proclaimed a hero.
The start of 1918 saw no revolutionary changes in the comedy or the comedy drama feature. Let us look at three examples.
We can start with Jack Spurlock, Prodigal (1918). The film's set-up is aptly described by Hal Erickson as follows: "An incurable cut-up, Jack Spurlock throws a college campus in an uproar when he shows up the first day of classes with his pet bear. Needless to say, Jack is immediately booted out of college, infuriating his big-businessman father (Dan Mason)." Father puts Jack to work as a purchasing agent at the family's wholesale grocery business. But Jack makes the mistake of ordering 200 carloads of onions, which gets his father so mad that he exiles his son to heavy labor at a warehouse out of town. At the warehouse, Jack falls in with union organizers, who delegate him to act as a strike representative. This manages in the end to get Jack fired from the family business. Jack is working at a cheap cafe when he has a chance encounter with Professor Jackson. The professor, a manufacturer of patent medicines, mentions to Jack that he uses onion juice as the principal ingredient in his latest mixture. Jack quickly gets the idea to sell the professor his father's surplus of onions. This puts Jack back into his father's favor. His father sees that his boy has business sense after all and he reinstates him at his old job. A bear walking around a college campus is funny. Carloads of onions are funny. But there is no way to say exactly how funny this film was from the plot description alone.
Our Little Wife (1918) had an undeniably screwball plot. Exhibitors Herald noted, "Dodo (Madge Kennedy), just married and seeing the unhappiness of three of her former suitors, decides to take them along on her honeymoon. Herb, the husband, has little to say, but his efforts to rid himself of Dodo's 'boys' almost results in a divorce."
Real Folks (1918) was an anti-snob story. Exhibitors Herald noted, "Real Folks is an entertaining story of a father who suddenly becomes rich and endeavors to bring his family into society. . . [W]ith many humorous twists and turns the story ends in a fashion pleasing to all and highly amusing to spectators." The ending might not actually be pleasing to everyone. The family goes back to their old lifestyle just to get away from the snobs.
Sennett successfully joined the women's comedy trend with Mickey, which turned out to be the highest grossing film of 1918. Though distinct in its own ways, the film stuck to the essential formula. The title character of Mickey, played by Mabel Normand, is a downtrodden working girl who ends up marrying a millionaire.
|Mabel Normandin Mickey (1918).|
|Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918).|
Sennett followed Shoulder Arms with his own comedy feature about the war. He essentially garbed the Keystone Cops in German military uniforms and let them run amok in muddy trenches and battlefields. Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) represents, according to Emory University film historian James Steffen, "the lighter side of the hate-the-Hun propaganda films which proliferated after America's April 1917 entry into World War I." Steffen pointed out that Sennett's bathing beauties played an important role in the promotion of the film. He wrote, "The Bathing Beauties became one of his most lucrative promotional tools, touring the country in special road show events that accompanied screenings of Sennett's films. Yankee Doodle in Berlin was no exception: not only did the Bathing Beauties appear on stage, but the film's lead actor, the professional female impersonator Bothwell Browne, performed an 'Oriental dance' for audiences."
The slapstick comedians who dominated the short subject market were slowly but surely moving into feature films. The King-Bee Film Corporation announced that they would produce a five-reel burlesque of "Romeo and Juliet" starring Billy West. It may have seemed like a good idea for a slapstick comedian to have the support of Shakespeare's highly regarded prose when he embarked on his feature film debut. The film, though, never materialized. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were willing to forsake their usual humor to make a feature for Metro. They turned out a melodrama called Pay Day (1918).
|Louise Fazenda in Down on the Farm (1920).|
|Harry Gribbon is about to bring down a mallet on Jimmy Finlayson in Down on the Farm (1920).|
Critics found the film to be a vast improvement to Down on the Farm. The New York Review stated, "Up in Mary's Attic beats Mack Sennett at his own game. . . This facially melodramatic, human-interest picture has about all the elements necessary for a hilariously thrilling screen hour — a triumph for Eva Novak, Harry Gribbon and Elmer J. McGovern. Up in Mary's Attic is something new in five-reel comedies and should be booked by every exhibitor because it is novel and artistic." No critic would ever think to call Down on the Farm novel and artistic.
This was exactly the response that the film's distributor, Nat Robbins, had hoped to receive. "Up in Mary's Attic," said Robbins, "contains everything that a feature should. There is rollicking comedy without any slapstick, and in addition, considerable dramatic situations, pathos and heart appeal which will register big with every audience." Motion Picture News similarly noted that the picture contained "a wealth of humor, heart interests, thrill and suspense."
Sennett had showed Hollywood that the best way to promote a comedy feature was with bathing beauties. In much the same way, Fine Art Pictures' publicity department focused attention on their own bathing beauties. They wrote, "A particularly interesting feature of Up in Mary's Attic is the fact that more than a hundred of the most charming and bewitching bathing beauties it was possible to assemble form a graceful background for much of the action and the development of the story. Each one of this bevy passed muster in the judgment of a number of judges of feminine beauty before being given a part in the picture. They are the liveliest, most bewitching set of sirens who ever faced a camera, according to those who have seen the picture." But it wasn't only the bathing beauties that bewitched the critics. One critic of the day wrote, "[I]t is difficult to tell which is the cutest — the hundred bathing girls, the baby, Harry Gribbon, Eva Novak or the dog!"
Exhibitors Herald reported, "There is one unusual phase in the screen entertainment offered in Mr. [Murray W.] Garsson's presentation, and that is that Up in Mary's Attic is a comedy photoplay with a plot, one that can be followed with interest even if interrupted frequently with bursts of laughter. . . There is, also, an unexpected smoothness in the continuity for a play of its kind."
The best review came from Motion Picture News' Laurence Reid, who wrote the following:
It looks as if the five reel comedy is here to stay. Mack Sennett experimented beyond the short reelers some time ago and enlarged his reputation to some extent, although the subject matter of his ideas belong in pieces of two reel length. Up in Mary's Attic is the newest five reel comedy and it is surely going to be heard from because it is based primarily on lifelike action, the burlesque incident being only secondary in capitalizing values. There is nothing of the slapstick about it. The humor is not gained by pie-slinging methods or by a heterogeneous group of grotesque comedians giving chase to one another. Its mirth-provoking qualities are founded on an incident of life that is reasonably true.Gribbon, the buffoon from Down on the Farm, achieved an effective balance with the sweet and lovely Novak. But Gribbon was not the only person in this production who was experienced with broad comedy. Novak had started out as a Sennett bathing beauty and, not long after, she received thorough slapstick training working opposite Gribbon at the L-KO company. The film's director, William Watson, was well known at this point for directing animal comedies at Universal.
You may call the picture a polite comedy — a satirical comedy — a melodramatic comedy and not go wrong on either count. Place a delectable type of femininity in a boarding school — bring out that she is married to the athletic instructor and will forfeit her inheritance and be expelled if the marriage leaks out — introduce a cute infant for unconscious humor and juvenile appeal — present a galaxy of the girls as the student body and you Have an idea that spells a comedy with a purpose. Take away the melodramatic trimmings and the bevy of "BeeVeeDee'd" beauties and any good director could fashion from the subject matter a bright and merry farce comedy.
The high spot in this offering is the aforementioned baby who enacts her scenes in a fine spirit of playfulness. Extremely provocative of laughter is her mother's attempt to hide her away from those who are not "in the know." Mary finds a safe place for her in the attic of the dormitory where an intelligent dog acts in the capacity of nurse. There are a number of effective scenes like this one. But for those who like their comedies dressed up with feminine pulchritude let us state that Up in Mary's Attic keeps to the standard set by Dr. Ziegfeld on the stage. They gambol on the beach, cut up high jinks in the gym and give the comedy a good deal of its appeal. Eva Novak and Harry Gribbon arc the featured players and they give an excellent account of themselves, the former lending tone and quality through her charm and sincerity, while the latter furnishes fun in his droll buffoonery. It is a comedy of situations and surprises. Not forgetting the baby.
|A scene from the Lyons and Moran's first feature, Everything But the Truth (1920). The actors are, left to right, Anne Cornwall, Lee Moran, Katherine Lewis and Eddie Lyons.|
|Ford West, Bynunsky Hyman, Harry Gribbon and Rosa Gore in Skirts (1921).|
The success of the Hippodrome inspired a trend among Broadway producers to stage grand-scale variety revues. Like the Hippodrome showmen, Florenz Ziegfeld featured fantastically colossal scenes in his "Ziegfeld Follies" shows. He crowded the stage with the most beautiful chorus girls to be found. Stanley Green, the author of "Ziegfeld Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre," wrote that the Ziegfeld girls always created the highlight of the show when they "paraded up and down flights of stairs as anything from birds to battleships." These shows brought the Broadway stage an image of grandeur and opulence.
|Ziegfeld Follies Girls|
Audiences cheered for the clown riding a horse around a track. They cheered for the elephant that lumbered on stage to perform tricks. It's no wonder that Variety reported, "The Hip show this season looks more circusy than ever."
Fox was so excited by the show that he quickly arranged to sign Cook to a contract. More important, he made plans to produce a cinematic version of the Hippodrome's epic variety revue. He would create his own lavish spectacle featuring clowns, trained circus animals, opulent sets, storybook characters, and an immense chorus of beautiful young women.
A contest among Fox employees produced the film’s title, Skirts. The studio’s ambitions for the film were perfectly outlined in a press notice that was released during the film’s production. Fox's publicists noted, "Skirts. . . establishes a precedent and fixes a new standard of ultimate effort in extravagant comedy for the coming year. It contains all the sensational and spectacular features of the three-ring circus, all the dash and splendor of the musical comedy, with its thousand beautiful girls, and wit and humor worthy of the best comedians. They have carried the banner of mirth into the very heart of joyland."
|Hampton Del Ruth|
Motion Picture News ballyhooed Del Ruth's arrival at the studio. The magazine reported, "Plans have been laid for a busy season of production at the Sunshine studio for the making of two-reel comedies, each one of which when released will carry Mr. Del Ruth's guarantee of something worth while and different. Each story will mean something, teach a lesson, or drive a moral home; it must gain its point by good, honest, wholesome laughter and humor. He does not believe it is necessary to insult or abuse any class or condition to attain this result. It is his ambition and purpose to put in each something more than mere entertainment; he wants each one to embrace a point so high and striking it cannot be forgotten."
Not long after this article appeared, Fox presented a much bigger challenge for Del Ruth. It wasn’t enough for the produce to create 26 two-reel comedies in the next year. Now, he also had to create a five-reel comedy feature that would outdo every comedy feature that had ever come before it.
|In between scenes, Chester Conklin tells Hampton Del Ruth a joke. The ladies are Marvel Rea and Virginia Warwick.|
Skirts was to be the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day. The film strove to provide a big cast, big stunts, big thrills and big laughs. It was no exaggeration when Fox publicists boasted that no expense was to be spared. A great sum of money was lavished upon the production, which was necessary if it was expected to set a new standard for comedy productions. Exhibitors Herald called it "the most lavish and ambitious attempt of its kind on record."
The preparation of the project was underway as early as October, 1919, at which time the popular Singer's Midgets were hired to appear in the film. Certainly, this troupe would give the film the circusy flavor of the Hippodrome shows. Motion Picture News reported, "[T]he Singers brought with them their entire menagerie of midget animals. The latter are as freakish and unusual in the way of stature as are their owners. This menagerie consists of four elephants, sixteen ponies, a monkey, a deer with fawn, seventeen hounds, four Dogenburg goats and a midget lion. These animals are highly trained and in themselves present an act of unusual interest."
What else could an audience expect from Singer's Midgets? In 1921, the troupe performed a ten-act show at the Keith's Theatre in Boston. A theatre critic with the Harvard Crimson wrote, "The Midget strong man, the Midget conjurer, the Midget 'Cleopatra' with the winning ways - these and many more were there. The Midget cowboys did their stunts, the Midget soldiers marched, and the Midget singer rendered 'Girl of My Dreams,' while the beauties of the chorus went on miniature fashion parade. Taken all in all, a very good example of small people 'going big.'"
The Singer’s Midgets were asked that, in their appearance in Skirts, they recreate their stage routine "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe." Fox credited all nineteen of the Singer’s Midgets in their press releases. The group included the following: Dora Veig, Anna Neider, Victoris Neider, Mitsi Vashek, Emilie Jaranyi, Isabella Steingruber, Karl Becker, Franz Steingruber, Louis Vashek, Fritz Tarabula, Julius Daranyi, Shandor Rocka, Joseph Posher, Gabor Baggi, Karl Florian, Edward Wilmot, Stephen Miskosh, Peter Dteneck and Vincent Tarabula. Becker and Roka later appeared as Munchins in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Becker was to become the Mayor of Munchkinland.
But it wouldn't be enough for Singer's Midgets to ride around on ponies or perform tricks with a midget lion. Their scenes had to be much bigger than that. Del Ruth came up with a cyclone scene. Exhibitors Herald reported, "In the cyclone scene, during which automobiles, trees and human beings are sent sailing through the air, the Liliputians ride to safety in the big shoe so familiar to readers of fairy tales." A cyclone, a large collection of little people, and a fairy tale theme. Why does that sound familiar?
|Circus scene from Skirts.|
It was arranged for the climax of the film to be set at a banquet. Publicists bragged that the set constructed for this scene was three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. They claimed, "[I]t was bigger than anything ever erected for motion picture use, save possibly one or two sets in Griffith's Intolerance. . . The tables at which the banqueters are seated were wide enough to accommodate [two thousand] diners plus the thousand girls who presently came dancing down them four abreast."
Determined to make Skirts an offering that would go down in motion picture history as unique and the most lavish of its kind, Mr. Fox conceived the idea of a ballet of hippodromic proportions. Orders were issued to the casting director at the Hollywood studios to provide a chorus of not less than one thousand of the most beautiful women obtainable. Although the mecca of all aspirants for film honors, it was realized that Los Angeles could not begin to provide the combined beauty of face and form demanded. As girl after girl was rejected, it was feared that the necessary number of perfect types could not be secured.
As a last resort "Perfect Form Contests" were instituted in cities throughout the United States and Canada where Fox film exchanges are to be found. Six weeks of contests presently brought together the group required.
A person possessing the statistical mind of the Fox studios was spurred by curiosity to investigate the nationalities of the girls in the perfect beauty chorus. Girls of Russian, English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, Italian, French, Polish, Hungarian and even Turkish and Syrian forebears were numerous. One miss confessed that her father was a Chinaman, while her mother was a Polynesian. This queer admixture of blood imparted to her a piquancy of beauty unusually attractive.
Fox demanded that the women be dressed in elaborate costumes comparable to costumes worn by the showgirls in the Ziegfeld Follies.
|Ziegfeld Follies Girl|
|Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba.|
In the end, Fox publicists claimed, "This rapid moving army of feminine beauty, moving in graceful unison, is regarded as one of the most impressive spectacles that has ever been filmed."
It was reported that Del Ruth was shooting the final scenes of the film during the first week of April. Del Ruth worked hard to assemble a finished print of the film (described as "long-heralded" by Film Daily) in time to preview the film at an exhibitors' convention held at New York's Commodore Hotel in May, 1920. Much to Del Ruth’s dismay, the film was not well-received by the conventioneers.
Fox decided to withhold the comedy special's release date until Del Ruth could find a way to fix the film. Del Ruth saw that he had no choice other than to resume production and reshoot scenes. Unfortunately, the unscheduled reshoots were delayed by several weeks because the studio had a number of large-scale films in production (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was one) and no stage space was available for Skirts. Certainly, space was needed for Sunshine's epic collection of fools and beauties to engage in tomfoolery amid the tumult and crowds of a sprawling three-ring circus.
In June, Exhibitors Herald reported that Del Ruth was shooting a new scene for Skirts. Del Ruth had purchased a locomotive and several train cars for an action scene in which the train would ultimately meets its destruction. Film historian Bob Birchard found an intriguing reference to this scene in the press book for Skirts. The passage read, "A runaway train dashing through a burning forest rushes upon a blazing bridge which crashes beneath its weight, plunging the train into a stream." Birchard rightly pointed out that this passage could accurately describe the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926). He noted that, in The General, "a railroad bridge is on fire and a Union officer sends the train across the bridge, only to have the bridge and train collapse into the creek." In The Funny Parts, I wrote about a spinning house gag that Eddie Cline used in the Sunshine comedy A Schoolhouse Scandal (1919). Cline later reused the gag in Keaton's One Week (1920). It is not hard to imagine that Skirts’ train sequence was directly borrowed by Keaton for The General.
So, what exactly was Del Ruth’s premise for the train scene? The film's villain, Jack Cooper, has kidnapped the heroine, Alta Allen, and he has taken her on board a locomotive. The film's hero, Chester Conklin, hires a plane to overtake the train. A news item focused on a daring stunt that was employed in Conklin’s rescue of Allen. It was explained that, according to the "Fox folks in Hollywood," it was a "stunt that will force cold chills up and down the spine." The stunt was described as follows:
Miss Allen, escaping from the locomotive cab, reaches the roof of the train and crawls along from coach to coach. Conklin, from his airplane overhead, discovers her, and his trusty pilot causes the plane to swoop down with a rush over the roof of the car. The rescuer has climbed over the side of the plane and is hanging by his feet from the underwork. At a signal from the director the plane dips and Conklin seizes Miss Allen, lifting her from the third floor of the coach and carrying her upward and away to safety.A dubious claim was made that Conklin accomplished the airplane feat himself. According to a press release, the comedian was strapped tightly to the bottom of the plane before the plane swooped down over the train. I can see no possible way that this could be true. The various Fox Sunshine units made extensive use of stunt men, which makes it is reasonable to assume that a stunt man substituted for Conklin in this highly dangerous scene.
Stills show that the heroine has to rescue her savior from the river.
Conklin figured prominently in another Skirts press release about a big action scene. Fox reported that the comedian was nearly killed when an explosion sent him hurtling from the top of a three-story building to the ground floor.
Most of Skirts' cast were veterans of Sennett comedies. The Fox studio used its extensive financial resources to routinely lure talent away from the Sennett studio.
The protagonists of Sennett's comedies were rarely admirable or sympathetic. This was certainly the case with Jack Cooper, who had made it his specialty to play morally disreputable characters. In this scene from Skirts, Cooper must be compelled by his landlady to pay overdue rent.
|Jack Cooper and Milla Davenport.|
This still shows Conklin and Cooper as rivals for Teare's affections.
|Chester Conklin, Ethel Teare and Jack Cooper.|
Conklin and Cooper had been at odds with each other before in Sennett films.
|Chester Conklin, Mary Thurman, Ford Sterling and Jack Cooper the 1918 Sennett comedy Beware of Boarders.|
The plot of The Foolish Age (1919): "[Chester] foists his attentions on banker's daughter [Phyllis] Haver until he learns that [Louise] Fazenda has inherited a fortune."Conklin was an adulterer, a homewrecker, a gold digger, and a wolf. He was, to put it simply, a cad.
The plot of Love's False Faces (1919): "Chester tries to make a play for [his] married landlady. . ."
The actor continued to play the same character at Fox. The character's unsavory nature was evident when Conklin played the title role in the Sunshine comedy A Perfect Villain (1921). Exhibitors Herald summarized the plot as follows: "A watch which the hero-villain loads with TNT and presents to his rival is the center of excitement. A poker game in which the infernal machine is repeatedly returned to its donor is a high light of the action." Yes, "hero-villain" is an appropriate title for Conklin's dubious characters. It is impossible to imagine Keaton or Lloyd killing off a rival with an exploding watch. This was hardly the sort of person that an audience would be willing to follow faithfully for six reels. The stills for Skirts certainly do not show Conklin behaving in gentlemanly manner. Does a good leading man slam a door shut on a lady's head?
|Chester Conklin and Ethel Teare.|
William Fox had his general manager, Winfield Sheehan, address the Skirts situation with Wurtzel. Fox soonafter wrote to Wurtzel, "With reference to Mr. Sheehan’s note to you, to have a director ready to make animal and slap-stick scenes for the picture SKIRTS, I have reached the conclusion that the only man I would care to have complete that picture would be Blystone. I have so told Mr. Sheehan and he will take the matter up with you on his arrival."
|Laura LaVarnie, Jack Blystone and Alta Allen.|
Del Ruth was barely out the door at Fox when some of his footage from Skirts was included into Mary’s Little Lobster. The film starts out with presumably new footage of Ethel Teare and Tom Kennedy at a young ladies seminary. According to Motion Picture News, the action starts with "a mechanical contraption. . . bouncing the pupils out of their beds, down a chute-the-chutes into a swimming pool." The second reel, which is footage from Skirts, involves Slim Summerville stealing a safe from the school. Summerville is caught up in a chase as he attempts to carry out the safe with him. After he finally gets away, he breaks open the safe and is surprised to find that all the safe contains is a monkey. Finding a monkey in a safe makes more sense with Skirts’ circus setting than it does with Lobster’s seminary setting. It was established in earlier press releases that Summerville had a prominent role in Skirts as the circus ringmaster. The comedian also took a hand in directing parts of the film. How much of his acting or directorial work ended up in the final film is unknown.
Skirts was released in its new form on April 10, 1921. Not much of the plot was revealed in trade journals. We discover as the film opens that Clyde Cook grew up in a circus sideshow as the son of a bearded lady and he now works in the sideshow as a handyman. Of course, a dilemma must be introduced to set the plot into motion. Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince explained, "[Cook] loves the owner's daughter and she loves him. The strong man, however, also loves her. . . Papers arrive to prove that the circus boob is an heir. But, ha, they are stolen by the strong man." Cook has to catch up to the strong man and regain his papers to claim his sizable inheritance. Press materials identified Edgar Kennedy as the "heavy villain," which suggests that he played the nefarious strong man. The idea of rivals competing for a big cash prize makes for a simple plot. It is the sort of plot that could be found in a two-reel comedy. Of course, this brings us back to the idea that Skirts, as a tale of madcap destruction, rampant greed and frantic chase scenes, was the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day.
Birchard splits Skirts into three phases. Phase One was the cut that was shown at the exhibitors’ convention in May 1920, Phase Two was the cut that was prepared for release in August 1920, and Phase Three was the Blystone version that finally made it to theatres in April 1921. Many changes occurred during these phases. Actors were shifted from one role to another. Scenes were shuffled from one reel to another. I suspect that this production was just as chaotic as it sounded. Birchard wrote, "Chester Conklin and Harry Gribbon are rivals in the second phase. Gribbon is in the Navy and Chester is the villain, but there is also stuff with Chester as a talent agent (which may or may not preclude him from being a villain). Chester also turns up in images where he appears to be a member of the circus band."
|Chester Conklin plays an unscrupulous talent agent in this scene from Skirts. The woman standing next to Conklin is Alice Davenport. I was unable to identify the aspiring bathing beauty.|
|Harry Gribbon and the ladies.|
This means that it possible that each phase of the production had a different leading man - maybe Conklin first, then Gribbon, and finally Cook. At first, I thought that the trade journals identified Cook as the film’s lead from the start. But I just needed to read the various news items more closely.
"Singer's Midgets, 35 in all, will hereafter appear in Sunshine Comedies as will Clyde Cooke [sic], an English comedian."
"During the coming year there will be a great elaboration of the Sunshine comedies. The Singer Midgets have been engaged to appear in these features and we also have Clyde Cook, the famous Hippodrome comedian."
How do these facts sort out? Fox contracted with Cook in 1919 to star in his own series. The studio had high expectations for Cook and considered his hiring to be a coup for them. However, Cook’s commitments with the Hippodrome prevented him from starting his series for a number of months. None of the news items that I listed above specifically say that Cook would appear together with Singer’s Midgets in Skirts. The most convincing proof that Cook was not part of Skirts’ original cast was the fact that, when the cast was listed in a news item dated May 29, 1920, Cook’s name was nowhere in sight. I agree with Birchard that Cook did not become attached to Skirts until Phase Three. The plan for Cook when he joined Fox in April was to get the comedian to complete a short subject series for the studio’s upcoming 1919-1920 season. He began his stay at Fox working on a two-reel comedy called Kiss Me Quick. Within the next year, the comedian turned out six more short comedies for the studio. One of the films that came to occupy Cook's time was The Huntsman.
Gribbon had been well-received as the leading man of two feature films, Down on the Farm and Up in Mary's Attic. It would be understandable for Fox to assume that the actor could assure Skirts' success. Gribbon, whose on-screen image had been significantly rehabilitated since his Sennett days, was now able to play a big, bright hero.
|This still from A Dash of Courage (1916) shows the villainous sort of character that Gribbon had once played at Sennett. The other actors are Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery and Raymond Griffith.|
The Skirts experience could not have been entirely bad for Del Ruth as, in February, he married Skirts' leading lady Alta Allen. Actually, to be clear, Allen was only Skirts’ Phase Two leading lady. She performed in Phase One as a chorus girl and it is unknown if she participated at all in Phase Three.
Despite all of the reshoots and reediting, the exhibitors could not have been more displeased.
"Certainly glad I did not run this as a special. O. K. for kids."
"Picture a fair comedy, but not a special as advertised. Will get by very well at regular admission."
"Quite a lot of money spent making this one. Offers mild entertainment, but is not as good as advertised to be. Lost money on this one."
"No plot. Very poor picture. No appeal whatsoever."
"Thought this was a Fox special, but found out it was a piece of cheese. People walked out and laughed at me."
"Fox's idea of something. Was nothing. The operator and myself saw the last reel. We are old and tough and could stand it."
The film was poorly received by critics as well. Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince saw the film simply as a way for Fox to cash in on a growing new trend. She wrote, "The producing companies all seem to be taking a flyer at feature comedies. Skirts is Fox's latest novelty." Tince was not pleased at all by the film. She stated flatly, "I don't think Skirts is funny." But then she qualified her remarks. She wrote, "Now Skirts may be funny. I am inclined to think that perhaps it is. . . The longer I live the more I lean to the idea that I don't know a comedy when I see one. We have had this hunch ever since, having nearly passed away of ennui during Mr. [Lloyd] Hamilton's April Fool, we discovered that the beautiful, dark, young lady to our right. . . thought it simply wonderful and sat through the feature on the program so that she could see the comedy again. She's bright, too. So — you see — ?"
By every indication, Tince could have looked to her right and to her left and found no one else laughing at Skirts. The film passed through theaters without leaving much of an impression.
Tince wrote in closing, "Well - summed up - lots of Mr. Cook, too much of the strong man, not enough of the midgets, scarely any skirts, lots of doing every minute - and plenty of laughs - if such be the things you laugh at. . . [S]ome of the stunts are quite electrifying if you hadn't seen them done so many times before by Helen Holmes and others." I suspect that Tince's summary has a fair amount of merit. Del Ruth had adhered to Fox's strict instructions to put the main emphasis of the film on the beauties. Early test shots and early promotional material were largely centered on the young ladies. It was the entire reason that the film was named Skirts. But having the beauties periodically parade through a scene had no storytelling value and it did nothing to provoke the laughs that were expected from a long-heralded comedy spectacle. So, it made sense for Blystone to excise considerable footage of the beauties. We know, too, that much of the Singer's Midgets' footage was removed from the film and used later in short comedies. Was the film hindered by, as Tince said, "lots of doing"? Life Magazine said as much when it reported, "[Clyde Cook's] drollery is throttled by the excessive footage."
The kinder words from critics were reserved for the film’s stop-motion animation prologue, which depicted the creation of Adam and Eve. The scene was developed by special effects technician K. C. MacLean.
A number of critics made note of Cook's stone-faced acting. Tince wrote, "It is no fashionable these days for a comedian to smile. The dolorous Buster Keaton, the dumpy Snub Pollard, the obese and, I think, awful Lloyd Hamilton all maintain a determined calm through most of the vicissitudes, comic and otherwise — mostly otherwise — that beset them. Clyde Cook is no exception."
This article went through its own Skirts-style reworking. I produced an earlier version of the article before I got it into my head that I needed to delve much deeper in my research. I went searching for production material that might close the gaps in this twisting and turning story. Unfortunately, many of Fox's old records were never archived and they became lost throughout the years. What has survived? In 1972, Fox’s New York office donated 1,500 film scripts to the University of Iowa. The scripts are limited to the period of 1929 to 1971, which means the collection entirely bypasses the studio's extensive silent film period. Material from the Hollywood office was at one time donated to two libraries, the Margaret Herrick Library and UCLA's Performing Arts Library. Recently, though, Fox withdrew their material from UCLA and stored it at the Fox Research Library, which is located on the studio complex in Los Angeles. The material is not presently accessible to the public, but I did speak to a librarian at the facility and he was confident that he had nothing going as far back as 1921. This left the Herrick Library. The library had a listing in their catalog for Skirts. Their holdings on the film included a whopping total of 101 stills! I decided to acquire photocopies of the stills in an effort to recreate the film as best as possible. I was told by Birchard that I could distinguish original scenes and reshoot scenes based on the still codes. The stills for the Del Ruth scenes have an "HDR-SPEC" prefix and the stills from the Blystone scenes have a "BLY-15" prefix. Unfortunately, the collection did not include stills from the Blystone reshoots.
Let us review a few of the stills.
The following images show Teare in a distressing situation with Conklin and Davenport. Teare is brandishing a letter or legal papers. Pieces of smashed ceramic are at Teare's feet, which may be the reason the landlady is upset with her.
A large portion of the film evidently took place at a luxury boutique, where wealthy gentlemen were able to watch comely young women model clothing and jewelry.
|Joe Murphy, Bynunsky Hyman, Bert Gillespie and Rosa Gore.|
Conklin turns up at the boutique.
|Rosa Gore (reclining) and Chester Conklin,|
|Ben Turpin and Phyllis Haver.|
|Rosa Gore, unidentified actress, Joe Murphy and Ford West|
|Bynunsky Hyman, Jim Donnelly (?), Rosa Gore, Chester Conklin and Bert Gillespie.|
The boutique presumably spoofed the type of fine clothing salons frequented by the Los Angeles elite during this period. The best example that I could find was Bullock's Wilshire, which opened in 1929. Wikipedia describes the boutique as follows: "For refreshment, there was the top-floor desert-themed tearoom and the adjoining lounge where society women gathered for luncheon fashion shows. Truly elite service was reserved for the selected men invited to shop in the privacy of J.G. Bullock's wood-paneled private suite on the fifth floor. Titans of business and politics relaxed over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as sales associates modeled potential gifts."
Los Angeles historian Hadley Meares wrote, "[E]ach department [had] its own little boutique. Live models swayed around the Louis XIV salon in designer dresses, high rolling Hollywood players smoked cigars while being presented with shirts in Jo Bullock's wood-paneled private suite, and harried mothers could drop off their children in the crib-filled nursery before peeking into a room devoted solely to the creations of Coco Chanel, or indulging in a spritz of a new fragrance in the mirrored Hall of Perfume."
This photograph from a fashion exhibit at Bullock's Wilshire also shows models inserted in a life-sized picture frame. But, of course, Del Ruth's boutique could be seen as ostentatious and salacious compared to Bullock's Wilshire. My friend, Marilyn Slater, told me that she attended fashion shows at the boutique in the 1940s. She said that, at the time, the place was "very stylish and posh" and the customers that it attracted were mostly "dignified women with white gloves."
|Jack Cooper is caught hiding beneath an animal skin rug by Joe Murphy, Bert Gillespie and an unidentified actor.|
Many stills from the film feature Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen. It is difficult to figure out the story that was being told by these images. Booker is clearly having money problems.
|Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.|
He is so desperate that he attempts to rob the boutique.
|Harry Booker, Alta Allen, Laura LaVarnie, Rosa Gore, Bynunsky Hyman and Ford West.|
But it could be that the ladies have money and Booker is a broken-down old crook trying to cheat them out of their cash and steal their jewelry.
LaVarnie is unmoved by Booker's efforts to win her heart with flowers.
The disparate scenes only add to the confusion. Teare has an entirely different look in this scene. She is no longer wearing the country girl outfit and wig.
|The actors are, from left to right, Gus Pixley, Lois Scott, Ethel Teare, Blanche Payson, Billy Franey and two uncredited extras.|
Booker gets into all sorts of trouble at the boutique.
|Harry Booker is caught with friendly fashion models by Rosa Gore, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.|
I have seen a still that features Cook dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, which suggests that the young man did win his inheritance in the end.
Perhaps, a Hippodrome show was not a good inspiration for a feature-length comedy. It was eventually discovered that a problem with upsizing the Broadway musical was that it caused producers to neglect story and character development. This is likely the same problem that hindered Skirts. The film was a series of grand set-pieces that did not necessarily come together to advance the story or make the audience care about the circus handyman. It is hard to imagine that Singer’s Midgets floating upstream in a big shoe or chorus girls dancing on tables at the banquet brought Cook's character any closer to defeating the evil strongman and winning his inheritance, which was supposed to be the whole point of the story.
|Tombstone-like ad for Skirts.|
This is not the sort of stunt that could be found in a Helen Holmes serial.
The one exception to this rule may have been The General's train wreck scene. Michael Barrett, film critic with the PopMatters blog,wrote, "[T]he most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator. It’s the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time. What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn’t have Keaton in it? It’s certainly an impressive shot every time you see it — there’s the train really falling — but hardly a knee-slapper."
At least Keaton inserted himself into the train wreck in a publicity still.
Nonetheless, the stage was now set for the comedy feature to enter its Golden Age.
|Cook's short comedy series for Fox continued for two more years.|
The production stills from Skirts come from the Herrick Library's Hollywood Museum Collection. I thank my friend Marilyn Slater for obtaining copies of the stills. Marilyn went above and beyond the call of duty for the cause of film history. She made multiple visits to the library and she diligently operated her scanner to assure the sharpest possible images. Marilyn, you are the best! I also thank Bob Birchard, Steve Zalusky and Steve Rydzewski for their assistance.
A big phooey to Mae Tince for calling Lloyd Hamilton "awful." Being a true objective journalist, I could not say what I really thought of Miss Tince in the article. And now, well, being a Christian man, I still can't say it!
I dedicate this series of articles to the memory of Mr. Harry Gribbon.
|Flash the Dog gets between Harry Gribbon and Polly Moran in the 1928 MGM feature Honeymoon.|
|Moran, Flash and Gribbon in another still from Honeymoon.|
|Gribbon stars as a hard-nosed police detective in the 1930 Warner Brothers' feature The Gorilla.|
|Gribbon in another still from The Gorilla.|
Tommie Hicks, the host of a silent film comedy channel on YouTube, sent me an article with additional information on Skirts, a film that I discussed in my last article. This information elaborates even further on the film's troubled production history.
In 2003, Joe Blackstock of the Daily Bulletin dug up an old story about the daring aerial rescue scene, which was shot in the Southern California town of Narod. Blackstock noted that the shooting was scheduled to begin and end on January 14, 1920, but problems in staging the scene forced the crew to stay in town for two extra days. As I surmised, Conklin had a stand-in for the scene. Del Ruth arranged to substitute his star with stuntman Earl Burgess. It was Burgess' job to hang from the bottom of the plane and daringly snatch a dummy stand-in for Alta Allen from atop the train. It appears that Conklin wasn't even in Narod when the scene was filmed.
Del Ruth coupled two train cars. The first car represented a runaway train on which the heroine and villain were traveling while the second car was occupied by the camera crew, whose job it was to film the plane's descent over the train and the subsequent rescue.
Narod was a small town filled with citrus groves. It was exciting for the residents to have a movie company in town. Blackstone wrote, "The train tracks were lined with spectators during the filming hoping to catch a glimpse of movie history."
Unfortunately, the scene ran into problems. Blackstone reported, "Del Ruth spent the first day unsuccessfully trying to coordinate the movement of the trains with the plane, which was a lot faster." On the second day, the director made changes. He moved the camera onto the runaway train itself and, more important, he moved his crew to another section of the railroad line. Blackstone wrote, "The filming was moved east of Ontario, where the telegraph poles were below the level of the tracks, a safety factor for those in the plane. They got closer to success that second day, though on one attempt Burgess was nearly killed when he just missed hitting one of the poles."
According to Blackstock's information, Del Ruth was never able to satisfactorily stage the rescue stunt and he had to discard the scene from the finished film. It was explained by the Pomona Progress that, "[a]fter three days of constant trial and equally constant failure," Del Ruth had simply run over budget and had no money left to spend on the sequence.
This story clearly places the filming of the scene within the Phase One production schedule. So, why did the Exhibitors Herald report this as a fresh news item in June? I have two possible explanations. First, a publicity man could have seen value in reviving a five-month old story to generate press for the upcoming release. Second, Del Ruth could have restaged the scene during Phase Two production. A reference to the scene was made in the press book, which means that the scene was at one point completed.
According to Bob Birchard, Allen turns up in Skirts' early costume tests as a bathing beauty. It was my understanding that Allen wasn’t promoted to leading lady until Phase Two production. But the Pomona Progress story makes it clear that Allen participated in the shooting in Narod, which means that she was the film’s leading lady from the start. The newspaper identifies the actress as playing a "beautiful heiress."
Burgess was back doing aerial stunts for Del Ruth the following month. Gerald A. Schiller wrote in "Aviation History" magazine:
On February 6, 1920, Burgess was doing a scene in a film for comedian Chester Conklin and accompanied by flier Walter Hawkins. Like too many stunt fliers, Burgess had refused to wear a parachute. According to some reports, he was also out of condition and overweight. He was apparently supposed to climb out on a wing, simulate a fight with a dummy, knock the dummy (the "villain") off the plane, then climb back into the cockpit.
After the scene was filmed the first time, they flew back to the airfield to give Burgess a rest. However, the scene had to be reshot — either because they needed another copy for foreign release or because the director was unhappy with the first take (accounts differ). Burgess insisted on doing the second take right away rather than wait until the next day. This time, after he threw the dummy from the aircraft, Burgess began to work his way back to the cockpit. But when he reached the wing skid, the two men in the camera plane flying nearby could tell the stuntman was close to exhaustion. A.C. Mann, the pilot of the camera craft, tried to maneuver below the plane where Burgess hung, so that he could get his top wing under the tired performer. But the stuntman looked across at the other plane, shook his head hopelessly and let go. He fell 500 feet onto some high-tension wires and died shortly thereafter.
This gives me the opportunity to admit to one glaring error in my Lloyd Hamilton biography. Burgess did a number of aerial stunts for Fox and other studios. When I read about the circumstances of Burgess' death, it seemed to match up with an aerial scene that appeared in the Sunshine comedy A High Diver's Last Kiss. The problem was that A High Diver's Last Kiss was filmed in 1918 but, as I later learned, Burgess died in 1920. Yes, that was as I said a glaring error. When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.
The Photo-play Journal reported on the filming of A High Diver's Last Kiss. The magazine explained:
There was a time when the driving of automobiles filled with dummies off of dangerous places would satisfy an audience, but today real actors must take the place of the substitute. This is the reason why so few of these scenes are shown of late. In some scenes where aeroplanes are used it is possible to get the effect from a machine suspended from lines. In The High Diver's Last Kiss a recent Sunshine Comedy, it was, however, necessary for Betty Carpenter and Slim Summerville to make many of the scenes from an aeroplane flying several hundred feet from the ground. The cameraman was in another machine which flew near enough to photograph the action. Capable aviators were driving both machines, still to risk one's life climbing about a machine going eighty miles an hour at a height of several hundred feet in the air is not nearly as funny as it looks on the screen.So, what film had Burgess performing stunts on an airplane wing? Conklin starred in four two-reel Sunshine comedies during this period. Here is a list:
Her Private Husband (March 15, 1920)Which one of these films had aerial stunts? The Great Nickel Robbery, which burlesques the the poor trolley car service that passengers receive for their nickel fare, ends with a wild and fast-paced streetcar chase. Dangerous Eyes, which involves the misadventures of a janitor in a department store, ends with a wild and fast-paced rooftop chase. Should Dummies Wed? has to do with a burglar who steals an antique suit of armor. The burglar brings the suit of armor to a pawnshop, but the pawnshop owner suspects that the item was stolen and ends up chasing the burglar through the streets. At one point, the burglar is almost struck by a streetcar. Motion Picture News reported, "The street car trick is worked — with the trolley running on the switch just when it approaches the victim. This stunt is becoming passe." (Little did this critic know that this gag would persist throughout the decade. See The Funny Parts and Eighteen Comedians of Silent Films for more information.) The Film Daily was fairly descriptive of Her Private Husband's plot. The magazine noted:
The Great Nickel Robbery (April 26, 1920)
Dangerous Eyes (May 10, 1920)
Should Dummies Wed? (May 24, 1920)
Fox's newest Sunshine comedy starts with a laugh in which Chester Conklin is reposing on the lap of a woman of plentiful proportions, sewing a patch on his trousers, while he plays solitaire on the floor. After that, Conklin, as the waiter and the cook, starts throwing a mass of dough about, and then comes the breaking up of crockery. No particular attention has been paid to continuity, for the next scene finds him before a cinema theater, where he flirts with a youthful, married, amateur actress. There is a laugh where Conklin tampers with the poster, but the stuff that results later lacks novelty, a great deal of it consisting of the shooting of revolvers and then a burlesque on a benefit performance. There is some good trick photography in the last few hundred feet, where Conklin bounces lightly about on balconies. Some of the gags in the early portion are funny.Not one of these stories has Conklin battling a villain on the wing of a high-flying plane. Could Burgess have died while filming another scene for Skirts?
|Chester Conklin in Skirts.|
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Steve Zeitchik identified a new type of film called the "impressionistic biopic." The article provided the recent biopic Steve Jobs as an example. The film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, has adamantly defended the film against criticism that its episodes deviate too far from the true story. The writer contends that, in telling the story, he preferred to make creative and interesting choices rather than simply provide dramatic re-creations of actual events. Similarly, Robert Zemeckis saw his biopic The Walk (about wire-walker Philippe Petit) as not so much a historical account as, according to Zeitchik, "a whimsical ode to the powers of dreams."
Zeitchik enthusiastically endorsed Steve Jobs and The Walk as "narratively ambitious" works that expand "creative possibilities." He wrote, "In a postmodern storytelling universe that has long left literalism behind. . . these movies sidestep the issue of whether an event really happened. Accuracy is defined not as literal fact but spiritual truth; if a movie conveys the essence of a person, that is enough. New films about Steve Jobs, jazz great Miles Davis and wire-walker Philippe Petit — and slightly older ones about musician Brian Wilson and the FBI's infamous Abscam sting — implicitly offer themselves up as real without adhering to a strict version of reality."
I cannot agree that art is more important than truth. It is the height of vanity for a filmmaker to proclaim wisdom in replacing hard facts with fanciful illusions. I also cannot agree with Sorkin’s double-talk that a writer’s fabrications can "[get] at some larger truths." If you get caught telling a lie, see how well it works to say that you lie to tell a larger truth. People generally lie to serve a personal agenda and promote their own malleable version of the truth. It is no different with Sorkin. Nothing good has ever come from a person trying to rewrite history. It is the outstanding actions of men and women that express the spirit of a story and it is the duty of the filmmaker to be faithful to the story as it occurred.
Impressionistic painters used their imagination to elevate ordinary subject matter. Paul Cezanne used this style to create beautiful images from regular people - Man With a Pipe, Man with arms folded, Man in a Straw Hat. The biopic subject is typically a man whose accomplishments have made him an outstanding figure in human affairs. This type of man does not require an artist’s whimsy to endow him with strength or substance.
Comedy has a rich history. Just the history of the mirror routine has kept me busy turning up a variety of facts. More facts about the routine were recently provided on the NitrateVille forum by Max Linder authority Georg Renken.
I have written extensively about the stage act ''The Broken Mirror,'' a popular variation of the mirror routine that entertained audiences in Europe and the United States from at least 1910 to 1922. Most journalists at the time identified the performers of the act as "The Schwartz Brothers," which is the way that I identified the performers in my previous writings, but I now know that newspaper advertisements of the day showed the duo being billed under the name "The Schwarz Brothers."
The Schwarz Brothers were, as I said before, a father and son. Renken found that the duo’s real names were Camillo and Carl Robl. The men were so determined to retain exclusive rights to the mirror routine that they registered the act for copyright protection in every country they visited. They were able, in the end, to establish ownership of the routine in France, Spain, Germany and Austria. In 1912, the Austrian police raided theaters to confiscate prints of a Dutch film that featured the mirror routine. It was easy to identify the film as it was called De Gebroken Spiegal, which translates into English as The Broken Mirror. The EYE Film Museum summarizes the film’s plot as follows:
While cleaning the lieutenant's cheval-glass, Jan, his valet, accidentally smashes the mirror. When the lieutenant comes home early in the morning after a drinking bout, he decides that he must shave and put on clean clothes. Fortunately for Jan, the lieutenant is not only befuddled, but also somewhat myopic. In order to deceive his master, Jan stands behind the empty mirror frame and "reflects" the lieutenant's every move.The role of the lieutenant was played by Philip Kelly and the role of the valet was played by Dirk Logemann. EYE quotes The Bioscope, a London-based film magazine, as calling the film "a cleverly worked comic, in which the mirror episode provides excellent fun."
By looking up the act under the new spelling, I was able to turn up additional articles. I found that Camillo and Carl were well-received in New York on their arrival in 1913. Variety reported in October:
The Schwarz Brothers, or Schwarz and Co., in "The Broken Mirror," presented the turn in American vaudeville for the first time Monday at the West End theatre, New York, and lived up to all previous reports heard of this truly remarkable act of its kind. In "mirror work," where two people dressed alike give the illusion of a reflection in the glass, the Schwarzcs have no equal. Not alone that their intricate and difficult performance is highly finished in every way, the act is hinged upon a complete story that carries a large quantity of comedy, adding laughter to surprise. The mirror business is continued for the greater part of the 19 minutes the act runs. It is timed to a nicety, almost delicately spaced, so exact are the simultaneous movements of the two men involved. No attempt is made to keep secret that two are engaged in the illusion. The tale of the sketch prevents that, for the story is of a valet, having broken an expensive plate glass flamed mirror, who seeks to hide the accident from his master by appearing behind the mirror himself, half dressed as the head of the house is, and making the master believe the mirror is still intact. The finish is a strong laugh through which the valet escapes blame for the breakage. A servant girl is employed, making a company of three. The Schwarzes walked away with the hit of the Evelyn Nesbit Thaw show at the West End. It is a big novelty comedy act.The phrase "timed to a nicety" explains for the most part the appeal of the act. And, as if the October review wasn’t enough acclaim for Camillo and Carl, Variety offered further good words about their act the following month:
The Schwarz Brothers repeated their ''Broken Mirror" for the third week. They continue to prove they have a big comedy turn and do some very finely drawn work in it. If the "mirror" could be set upstage center, the effect all over the house would be heightened. From certain sections, where the frame really appears as a mirror, instead of seeing it diagonally the "mirror work" is even better appreciated.According to Variety, the ''Broken Mirror" act again "made a big hit” when the Schwarz Brothers returned to the United States in 1915. The paper said of their performance at Chicago's McVicker's Theatre, "The brothers displayed wonderful proficiency in the art of mimicry and the mirror deception kept the house in a mirthful state."
I noted in a prior article that Max Linder performed the mirror routine in a 1913 film, Max on the Road to Matrimony. It was my understanding at the time that legal threats from the Schwarz Brothers compelled the producers to withdraw the film from circulation. Thanks to Renken’s extensive research of foreign periodicals, I now know that the film continued to play across Europe in two alternate forms. The complete one-hour version of the film, which featured the mirror routine during its final act, continued to be shown in countries where the courts had rejected the Schwarz Brothers’ copyright claims. The routine was excised from prints of the film that were distributed to the other territories that I mentioned before. Max on the Road to Matrimony was the UK title. The film was released in France as Le duel de Max (Max’s Duel), it was released in Germany as Max und die Liebe (Max and His Love), and it was released in Australia as The Last Laugh. Surprisingly, it does not appear that the film ever made it to the United States.
The mirror routine definitely stood out whenever the film was exhibited in its complete form. Kalgoorlie Miner, an Australian daily newspaper, reported, "The story is full of quaint and whimsical humour, which culminates in some exceedingly funny scenes before a mirror, in which Max sees strange visions." A Dutch newspaper, Nieuwe Tilburgsche Courant, recounted, "This number keeps visitors for a good hour in tension and laughter whether they like it or not. Here we get to see ‘the broken mirror,’ a nice counterpart to the famous scene. Only here is the mirror did not break, but it was simply taken by the crafty nephew out of the frame." The Bioscope noted, "[Max] sees a horrible apparition in the mirror. A trickster is revealed and Max is happy once more."
I am grateful for the wonderful work of Georg Renken. I recommend that you visit his Max Linder website at http://www.maxlinder.de/.
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre did not endear himself to many of the men and women who are dedicated to the study of silent cinema. His strange offenses may be difficult to understand, but I will do my best to sort them out and put them into perspective.
People who love silent films have to live with the sad fact that most silent films are lost because the film studios either destroyed prints or allowed prints to deteriorate. It was with great affection and interest that I wrote a biography of silent film comedian Lloyd Hamilton. I could never get over the fact that some of Hamilton's best films, including his immensely popular Robinson Crusoe Ltd., have not survived. It is, to me, no less than a tragedy. But then we had MacIntyre turning up as a frequent reviewer on the Internet Movie Database and claiming to have special access to rare prints of silent films presumed by scholars to be lost. MacIntyre's breezy and witty reviews of these films got scholars excited that long-lost classics had been rediscovered. But were they really? Film historian Thomas Gladysz contacted MacIntyre about his review of the lost film Social Celebrity. MacIntyre responded as follows:
This print is (or was) in the personal collection of a private film collector in Europe, who does not wish to be publicly identified. . . This collector is a private individual who only very rarely grants access to his film collection. I was given very limited access to his collection, solely in order to inspect his films as physical artefacts in need of restoration. I do not have direct contact with this gentleman; I contact him only through his attorneys, who are strongly inclined to refuse all requests for access to his collection. He has made it clear that he will not grant public access to his collection. As this gentleman has been helpful to me in my own business endeavours, I must respect his privacy.Gladysz was rightfully suspicious.
I became a fan of MacIntyre after I read his 1994 science fiction novel The Woman Between The Worlds. The story, which is set in Victorian England, involves a Scooby gang that bands together to battle a powerful otherworldly creature and its ghoulish invisible minions. The first half of the book is an enjoyable and energetic romp, but the book suddenly takes a dark and violent turn and the characters that have earned our sympathy are shockingly slaughtered one by one. MacIntyre later addressed the book's abrupt change in tone, explaining that his wife died while he was writing the book and his grief expressed itself in the death and destruction that dominated the book's final chapters. He sounded apologetic, as if it bothered him a great deal to write book so unpleasant and disturbing. But, from what I now know about MacIntyre, I do not believe this explanation at all. I believe that he set out in an impish way to trick unsuspecting readers, soothing them with lighthearted adventure before luring them to unexpected atrocities and doom. This is not to say that I disprove of the book. It is the work of a truly talented author. I am not alone in my admiration of MacIntyre’s books. Other fans of the author’s work included Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison.
I later enjoyed MacIntyre’s clever and insightful reviews on the Internet Movie Database. I approached MacIntyre to collaborate with me on a book. He reacted with enthusiasm to my proposal.
I enjoyed MacIntyre's long and rambling emails at first, but I eventually wanted us to get down to business. Much to my chagrin, it was hard to get the man to focus. He was later described by Invisible Ink columnist Christopher Fowler as "intelligent but undisciplined." I had recently abandoned a Betty Hutton biography because a collaborator was in the middle of a divorce and he was having a great deal of difficulty concentrating on his work. So, I had little patience left for MacIntyre. I made it clear to him that we had to move ahead on our project. He agreed to get to work immediately on a chapter on British comedian Fred Evans. He claimed that he knew a great deal about Evans. I was happy to see him finally direct attention to a specific topic.
I got an email from MacIntyre the day after Christmas to wish me a happy Boxing Day, which he explained is a tradition among his friends and family in Great Britain. I understood at the time that he was living in Wales. By then, my erratic friend had abandoned his plans to write about Evans. He said that he decided that it would be better for him to write about another British comedian, Dan Leno. This was not a reasonable choice for the purposes of our book. Our book was about film comedians. Leno could hardly be called a film comedian. He had make a few short films from 1900 to 1902. I had in fact seen one of the films, a trivial 36-second film called An Obstinate Cork. Here it is.
I was unaware that any of Leno's other films had survived. MacIntyre assured me that he knew an obsessively private film collector in Europe who had rare prints of many silent films presumed to be lost. I must say that, by this time, I had become somewhat wary of my collaborator.
The next time that I heard from MacIntyre, he said that he had abandoned his essay on Leno to focus instead on French clown Marceline. Marceline’s only film, Mishaps of Marceline, is lost. Here is a reconstruction.
How was it appropriate to write an essay about Marceline for a book about film comedy?
MacIntyre later informed me that he had to take a break from his research on Marceline because he was reading articles about Marceline’s suicide and it had made him severely depressed. He doubted that he would be able to finish his essay. He felt bad about this because he found Marceline’s story to be interesting and he thought that someone should tell the man’s story. I told him to forget about Marceline. I said that, if it would make him feel better, I would write up something about Marceline for my blog. It had become obvious to me by now that he had serious psychological problems. I asked him if he had ever seen a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis about his condition. I was trying to help him, but he must have resented my comments because he never spoke to me again.
Months later, I got the news that MacIntyre had committed suicide. He set his apartment on fire and burned up in the flames. The story was written up in the New York Times under the title "Fiery End for an Eccentric Recluse."
Gladysz and others did considerable research on MacIntyre after his death. It was determined that his name was fake and his British accent was fake. He had been born and raised in New York. No one ever found out his real name. Oh, and I should mention that he did not live in Wales. He lived in Brooklyn.
Journalist Annalee Newitz assembled a revealing article about the man. She wrote,
[MacIntyre] was fanatical about privacy, and used several different names for himself, with different identities on his tax forms, his ID, and on his various writing projects. He told stories about his history that sounded like 19th century fairy tales, claiming that he was born in Scotland but sent to an orphanage in Australia to do labor. . . He despised his family, and neighbors claimed they could hear him screaming at his mother late at night, accusing her of ruining his life. . . Though MacIntyre tried to project a jovial, man-of-the-world personality to his friends in fandom, there was always something dark about this fictionalized self. He often claimed to be deformed, and said that he had to wear gloves because of some sort of problem with his hands. Sometimes he said his fingers were webbed; other times he simply alluded to a "hideous skin condition." He also complained that he suffered from synaesthesia. Online, he claimed to have been married more than once, with children. But when his body was found this summer, police could locate no relatives - children or otherwise.
Fowler wrote, "MacIntyre enjoyed starting feuds, and one of them ended with the female neighbour who used to carry out his endless bags of rubbish being tied to a chair, shaved and sprayed black. Delightful eccentricity had now given way to a damaged mental state. His career followed a downward spiral and he lost his job working nights in Manhattan as a printer."
I later learned that MacIntyre had written material for our book, but he ended up posting the material to the Internet Movie Database. He wrote about a number of Leno films, including The Rats (1900), Mr. Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr. Herbert Campbell, Editing the 'Sun' (1902), Bluebeard (1902) and The Obstinate Cork. You saw the 36-second Obstinate Cork earlier. Let’s see what MacIntyre had to say about the film:
Never try to guess a film's content by its title! When I learnt that Leno had made a film cried "An Obstinate Cork", I assumed that this would be a screen record of one of his comedy turns ... with Leno making increasingly slapstick attempts to open a bottle of wine or beer. No, even better: champagne, because (when the bottle eventually opens) the bubbly will foam all over the place.MacIntyre provided a fair, interesting and sometimes amusing assessment of the film. More important, he effortlessly weaved historical facts throughout his description of the film. I see value in the man’s work and I believe that film historians who demanded that all of MacIntyre’s suspect IMDb reviews be indiscriminately deleted were looking to throw out the baby with the bath water.
In the event, I guessed right about the champagne but wrong otherwise. This film isn't even a comedy; by modern standards, it's really more of a home movie. Leno wore elaborate costumes on stage (often including female drag in dame roles), but here we see him in his normal offstage appearance: in a frock coat and stock collar, with his hair neatly parted down the centre. Standing beside him is his real-life wife Sarah Reynolds: she had danced in Victorian music-halls under the stage name Lydia, but she was never remotely as popular as Leno. In this film, she's dressed in a demure shirtwaist, with her hair tucked into a severe chignon; her husband is clearly the more glamorous figure.
Mr and Mrs Leno are standing outdoors in Clapham Park, near their home. Leno attempts to open a bottle of champers, but it gives him some bottle right back. He struggles a bit, and it eventually opens. Skoal!
That's it. To watch this film, you would never suspect what a major entertainer Leno was in the decade before his untimely death. Leno had an extremely expressive face, capable of being both comic and tragic at the same time. In this movie, when he briefly grimaces with the effort of his task, it's not clear whether Leno is mugging for comic effect or expressing honest emotion.
The American Biograph film studio were notorious for inserting their "B" logo into the backgrounds of their film sets, to establish artistic ownership and discourage other exhibitors from creating pirated prints. I looked for a similar "B" in this British Mutoscope & Biograph movie -- viewing a print pirated by Kinora (no relation to Kia-Ora) -- but I couldn't find anything comparable.
More for its historic significance than for any actual hilarity, I'll rate "An Obstinate Cork" 7 out of 10.
Leno appeared in Editing the 'Sun' with his frequent partner Herbert Campbell. MacIntyre wrote:
"[It] is a crude silent film, almost a parody newsreel. It depicts an actual event, yet it's clearly a staged enactment. On April Fool's Day 1902, Leno and Campbell served as guest editors of the "Sun." This movie purports to show the two men hard at work in the newspaper's office in Temple Avenue, which looks suspiciously like a movie set. . . Leno tries to paste some news stories into a page layout, while Campbell laughs at the sloppy results. Leno's neat hair becomes disarrayed, and he ends up with the news items pasted to his head like court-plasters.Here is what MacIntyre had to say about Bluebeard:
"Blue Beard" (two words) was the pantomime musical comedy playing at the Drury Lane Theatre from Christmas 1901 into the spring of 1902. Very loosely based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale about a polygamous serial killer, this panto starred Herbert Campbell as Blue Beard, the dancer Julia Franks as his seventh bride Fatima (he murdered all the other lot) and the great comedy star Dan Leno as Fatima's sister Anne, whom Blue Beard must also marry in order to wed Fatima.
Leno, Britain's leading comedy star of the day, frequently wore grotesque costumes (often female) but nearly always displayed his own hair in its distinctive style, parted neatly down the centre. In this brief film, as Sister Anne, he wears an elaborate frock that's quite pretty in its own right, topped by a wig of long ringlets that includes a feminine version of Leno's trademark centre-part.
Leno's stage act consisted largely of comic patter songs (unsuitable for a silent film, of course) and elaborate clog-dancing routines: his dances, too, were not especially suitable for silent film, since Leno performed extremely percussive clog routines that relied heavily on sound for their effect.
Act One of "Blue Beard" concluded with sisters Anne and Fatima entering a forbidden room in Blue Beard's castle, where they discover the severed heads of his previous six wives. This being a comedy panto, naturally the heads are still alive and they offer some bad jokes. . . Stepping forth to confront Leno is some sort of huge vaguely disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim, with rolling eyes and lolling tongue. Dangling from the face's chin is a long beard resembling a hula-dancer's grass skirt: this beard serves the obvious purpose of concealing (not much!) the lower body of the actor wearing the enormous face. The actor's feet are just barely visible at the bottom edge of the beard, and his hands (supporting the enormous face) are just visible behind the face's surprisingly understated ears. When this enormous face confronts him, Leno reacts comically and performs one of his distinctive "twizzle" dance steps, which would likely be more effective if we could hear it as well as see it.
Several reliable sources categorize Editing the 'Sun' and Bluebeard as lost films. Yet, despite his alleged hoax reviews, he acknowledged that he was unable to track down a print of The Rats. He wrote, "I've searched diligently for this film, and I now sadly conclude that it seems to have vanished. . . Though "The Rats" probably contains no information about these performers that is not already known, it would be a fascinating glimpse into the theatre world of that era. Here's hoping this lost film gets found!"
He proceeds to provide a bit of supposition about the film:
'The Rats' was apparently a brief newsreel-like film (not a comedy) of these six performers as themselves: merely acknowledging the camera, not performing in character. Due to the unwieldy nature of early cinema cameras, the Water Rats' upstairs meeting-room was an impractical site for filming them, so this movie was probably shot elsewhere. If this film was ever intended for exhibition, surely "The Water Rats" or "The Grand Order of Water Rats" would have been a more appropriate title than the merely generic one given here.Did the Bluebeard film really include a "disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim" or is this something that came out of MacIntyre's vivid imagination? This can be a description that MacIntyre obtained from an old magazine or newspaper, but I can tell you that my usual periodical sources include no such description of the film. The pantomime show on which this film was based had disembodied heads turn up in Bluebeard's forbidden chamber, but no head that I know of had rolling eyes, a lolling tongue and a skirt-like beard.
Gladysz came up with a reasonable theory on MacIntyre's actions. He wrote:
The New York Times noted MacIntyre worked night jobs in order to spend his days at the New York Public Library researching things which interested him. Those subjects included early film, of which he was by all accounts knowledgeable.MacIntyre’s IMDb reviews angered many film historians. William Charles Morrow, author of The Chiseler blog, wrote, "The more I hear about this man, the more his story sickens and disgusts me. The major problem we have in trying to discuss a person who was a known, serial liar and fraud is that one never knows what's real and what is not. His word is worthless by itself."
MacIntyre was something of a pastiche artist. To me, his reviews of silent films he couldn’t have seen read like a kind-of pastiche of reviews found in the old film periodicals housed at the New York Public Library. That occurs to me now when I reread his IMDb review of A Social Celebrity. Its last line, "Louise Brooks is as seductive as usual, but she has very little to do here," echoes the kind of observation made by a number of film critics in the 1920’s.
It’s hard to know why MacIntyre claimed to have seen A Social Celebrity and other lost films – and thereby muddied the historical record. Perhaps it was a game. Perhaps it was one way of getting attention. Perhaps it was his way of asserting control over a world in which he felt increasingly out-of-sorts. We’ll never know. MacIntyre was an enigmatic, intellectual loner.
I proceeded to write the silent film comedy book on my own. It became Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film. The book included a brief passage on Fred Evans, but nothing on either Dan Leno or Marceline.
I became frustrated and angry with MacIntye while I was working with him, but I now feel guilty that I did not show the man more understanding and compassion. I still read his IMDb reviews and I still enjoy them. I do not believe he did great damage to the study of silent cinema. I regret that I could find no way to make our collaboration a more worthwhile and satisfying experience for him.
Lauren Duca examined film comedy’s woman-child in a Huffington Post article titled "The Rise Of The Woman-Child." The main point of the article was to criticize a perceived double standard in the treatment of the woman-child versus the treatment of the man-child. Duca wrote, "[W]hile the man-child has flourished for decades, the female counterpart finds it near impossible to garner sympathy."
Duca had no trouble finding support for her claim. Anna Kendrick, who played a woman-child in Happy Christmas (2014), said, "If you’re a female, then you should have your shit together and you should be figuring it out. With men it’s just like, 'Oh, you know, he’s just still a frat boy at heart, and it’s no big deal.’" Paul Fieg, who directed Bridesmaids, said, "Classically, male characters have been able to get away with that more in the past. There's this weird thing ingrained in our culture that it's no fun to watch a woman out of control. You know, versus with a guy out of control, where the idea is that's just what they do."
The fact, plain and simple, is that Duca, Kendrick and Fieg are wrong. The man-child did not flourish for decades while the woman-child was shunned. The women-child has been in full view through the entire history of film. She can be traced back to comedy films that entertained audiences more than a hundred years ago. I wrote about this subject in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film. Here is an excerpt from my book:
A prevalent idea was that women, by their wildly irrational nature, were disruptive and needed to be contained. Saucy Sue (1909) was the story of a mischievous country girl who is invited to stay with her rich uncle in the big city. Her lively antics create problems for her uncle, who quickly sends her back home. In 1910, Mabel Normand starred in a series of "Rebellious Betty" comedies for Vitagraph. Betty was described in promotional literature as "a mischievous and willful tomboy, who shrinks at nothing so long as she can get her own way." The action in the first Betty comedy was described as follows: "[Betty] succeeds in upsetting half a dozen people, destroys an artist's masterpiece, jumps upon and rides away with somebody else's bicycle, which she afterwards abandons for a horse, and finally knocks off the head of the butler." Normand later played a similar role in the Biograph comedy Tomboy Bessie (1912). Bessie wields a slingshot to shoot rocks at chickens. At one point, she steals a bicycle and crashes it.I continued this discussion in a recent article (which can be found here).
A trend developed in 1917 with comedy features that centered on young women. The plots either had to do with a spoiled, rebellious heiress who has to be tamed for the plot to reach a satisfying resolution or a working girl who falls in love with an heir or a nobleman and has to overcome class conflicts to live happily ever after. The critics clearly identified the bad traits of the spoiled heiress. June Caprice's heiress in The Mischief Maker is "always impulsive;" Ann Murdock's heiress in Please Help Emily is "willful;" Jackie Saunders' heiress in Betty Be Good is "impulsive and mischievous;" and Margarita Fischer's heiress in Molly, Go Get 'Em is "irrepressible." These traits are the reason that these young women are always getting themselves into trouble. It takes the right man to bring out the loving and steady woman dormant inside these wild and bratty girls.For anyone who wants to know more about film comedy’s woman-child, I recommend that you read my forthcoming book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.
For most of film history, moviegoers have reacted to the man-child and the woman-child in much the same way. They have not unconditionally accepted the man-child’s bad behavior. They have only maintained sympathy for the man-child if they could see that he was unwilling to better himself.
The modern woman-child displeases audiences because she avoids the next important stage of human development - intimacy. Adam Sandler's man-child always gets the girl at the end, but his female counterparts risk the wrath of feminists if their personal growth leads them into an intimate relationship with a man. The feminist edict is that there be no man and certainly no marriage. Duca, herself, made it clear that she resented the idea that a woman's problems could be "solved with a white dress."
Sonja Bennett, writer and star of the woman-child comedy Preggoland, said, "The message of [Preggoland] is not that when you’re a woman and you’ve got your shit together or become a better version of yourself that means you want to be married or have children."
So, if the woman doesn't get her man, what does she get? Duca wrote of Kendrick’s Happy Christmas character:
By the end of the film, she hasn’t sworn off drinking, found a job or even clearly gotten over her ex. Her arc ends inconclusively. . . Jenny is left in limbo, a strange space, considering film usually insists on redeeming its characters in 90 minutes or less.The film’s writer and director, Joe Swanberg, said, "It’s a tricky narrative arc to leave the character at the end of the movie in roughly the same place they started."
Traditionally, marriage and family were the ultimate goals for a man and a woman. The natural role of God's creatures is to reach sexual maturity so that they can couple with the opposite sex and create the next generation. It is the circle of life. It is fine if you want to get your shit together to become an insurance adjuster or a real estate agent, but we play a more crucial role in society when we devote ourselves to being a good parent. I know that some people hate this idea, but I see it as pointless, contrived and arrogant for men and women to put themselves above the dictates of nature. You have a choice – chose nature or limbo.
The limbo ending is not fair to the people who have paid money to see a film. The nature of storytelling demands a resolution. A story is not a story without a resolution. This rule stands firm, which means that it cannot be subject to feminist notions.
Others resent the films that show women making any responsible decision at all. To them, the idea of the protagonist achieving a successful marriage or a successful career is unrealistic and, therefore, offensive. Jenny Slate, the star of the woman-child comedy Obvious Child, said, "I think that there are a lot of women who grew up with perfect rom-com leading ladies in the ‘90s, who are like, 'Yeah, that’s not the way we see ourselves.' We see all of it, and want to show all of it, and we don’t want to be told that we can’t be leaders just because we're lazy or we're messy sometimes. Sometimes everybody is lazy and messy, and it's okay."
Messiness is definitely a theme of the film. The film includes several crap jokes, including the leading man stepping in dog shit. Key scenes take place in bathrooms. Slate is dumped by her boyfriend in a bathroom. . .
she meets her new boyfriend in a bathroom. . .
and she learns that she’s pregnant in a bathroom.
The film opens with Slate, who plays a stand-up comedian, telling a crowd of people in a club about her messiness:
I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants. And, by the way, what all vaginas do to all underpants, okay? There is no woman who ends her day with, like, a clean pair of underpants that look like they've ever even come from a store, okay? They look like little bags that have fallen face down in, like, a tub of cream cheese, and then, like, commando-crawled their way out. And then, like, carabinered up, like, into a crotch. Like, they're not items that are for anyone to see. But now, I'm just like, "Whatever." You know, I have a human vagina.Freud would say that this toilet fixation suggests that the young woman suffered development difficulties at the anal stage.
Being lazy and messy will not get you far in life, believe me. And I personally do want to see a film that celebrates a willful loser just so that the willful losers of the world don't have to feel bad about themselves. That is not the job of comedy despite what Slate and other modern comedians say.
Slate misunderstands the role of the hero if she thinks that the hero, in his ideal and admirable form, is part of an evil plot to make the film-going public feel inadequate or outright useless. Whether or not a person is useless is their own personal choice. We have no reason to blame the hero for this. The problem may be that we have become so enthralled with the anti-hero that we forgot what a hero is exactly. The hero is aspirational. The hero is a role model. By his example, the hero is able to guide us on the right path and help us to succeed in the world.
The traditional comedy film managed to include, amid the foul ups and mishaps, a message of aspiration. The idea was that, even though we are not perfect and make mistakes, we will still succeed if we work hard, be brave, and never give up. The modern comedy is vastly different. It tells the viewer that it is alright for them to mess up and they have no need at all to become a better person. It instructs them to laugh at their chronic laziness and revel in their perpetual drunkenness. The objective of these films, pure and simple, is to have the viewer embrace his or her foolishness. But it is a false message. Believe me, Seth Rogen would not be a wealthy man if he really was a fool. Of course, a lazy, selfish, messed up person will respond favorably if he is told that he is fine just the way he is. Hollywood is an increasingly effective enabler that tells imperfect and ineffective people exactly what it is that they want to hear.
So, does the woman-child develop at all during the course of this new type of film? Duca wrote, "[W]ith the woman-child, there is usually a series of people who shape her journey. Resolution comes from building a sense of self through a community of people rather than just one man." Hilary Brougher, a Columbia University film professor, agreed with this idea. She said, "For women, happily ever after used to be the guy. But one of the edgier things coming out of this is that happily ever after is a group of imperfect people who understand and support you."
In other words, women are being told by filmmakers that they have a full and happy life as long as they have friends. A bunch of screwy friends surely help to get the heroine laughs in a sitcom, but most women know deep down in their hearts that screwy friends are no replacement for the ideal mate.
I should note that Obvious Child does end with the girl getting the guy (Jake Lacy). But, although both the guy and the girl are close to 30 years old, neither of them is quite ready to grow up. They don't eliminate the possibility of adult commitments, but they make it clear that this is something for them in the future. Their answer to the beckoning call of adulthood is, essentially, "Some day, not now."
These films put forth an opposition to marriage, prosperity and ideals that is, in the end, just bratty opposition to adulthood.
I offer today the latest collection of tidbits that I have come across while researching articles or just casually browsing the Internet.
|Variety, March 14, 1919|
The Rossow Midgets were a pair of boxing midgets.
The aging performers were soon supplanted by boxing twin midgets, Mike and Ike Matina.
Midget acts in general were a vaudeville staple.
|Variety, March 14, 1917|
I personally prefer a battle between slapstick comedians. You learn so many creative self-defense techniques from these free-for-all spectacles. For example, here is the proper way to squeeze a melon.
Of course, it is worth it at times to avoid a fight altogether. You can hide in plain sight by pretending to be a mannequin.
Ballard Berkeley is well remembered for playing the senile, amiable old soldier Major Gowen in Fawlty Towers. After Fawlty Towers, Berkeley made regular appearances on other sitcoms. He usually played some sort of variation on the Gowen character.
Publicity stills from the Fox Sunshine comedy Applesauce (1923).
I was amused by this still from Those Athletic Girls (1918).
The film was designed as a vehicle for Louise Fazenda, who played a janitor at a girl's school. I was able to find other images for the film on the Internet.
Fazenda is disciplining the class dunce, Slim Summerville. Sitting directly next to Summerville is Marvel Rea and Vera Steadman, who according to Sennett authority Brent Walker play "spunky student pranksters."
Fazenda again appears in this still from the Sennett comedy Are Waitresses Safe? (1917).
Jimmy Aubrey gives a little girl a piggyback ride in The Decorator (1920).
Universal publishes a full-page ad in The Moving Picture World to promote Lyons and Moran.
Bobby Vernon is caught in a compromising situation in this ad for the comedian's Christie series.
An ad for 1904 vaudeville show appears in the New York Dramatic Mirror.
Raymond Hatton, who is familiar to fans of The Abbott and Costello Show for playing Hillary Brooke's father in "The Music Lover" episode, was recognized as a versatile character actor in 1919.
A good train stunts always received a write up in the movie magazines.
Here we have a publicity still for Olsen and Johnson's horror comedy Ghost Catchers (1944).
This still is from a German forgery of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.
Evidently, this is a good way to win a husband.
|Variety, March 14, 1919|
Love and death are too often close companions.
|Variety, March 14, 1909|
The threat of Kaiser Wilhelm II made military preparedness an important matter in 1917.
An early film version of the drill routine was featured in Miss Jackie of the Army (1917). From the American Film Institute Catalog: "Discontent with the duties of knitting consigned to girls living on the army post, Jackie [Margarita Fischer], the daughter of Col. Kerwood, organizes a girl's brigade, much to the consternation of her father."
A forerunner to Our Gang assembled for drill practice in the 1917 Pathé Exchange release The Little Patriot. From the American Film Institute Catalog: "Instilled with the spirit of patriotism after her teacher reads to her the story of Joan of Arc, Marie Yarbell [Marie Osbourne] goes home, persuades her father to enlist and then organizes a 'military company' comprised of her playmates."
This is the program for the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple. The cover photo was replicated by the producers a number of times.
Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers
For years, Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the most familiar faces in movie magazines.
I have one last note for the day. I overlooked this scene from Welcome Danger (1929) in my recent examination of the "black brute" stereotype.
Tom Lisanti has written before about many different 1960s starlets. He has referred to these women in his book titles as fantasy femmes, drive-in dream girls, and glamour girls. But cult icon Pamela Tiffin is the first young actress so dreamy, glamorous and fantastic to merit the author’s loving and undivided attention for an entire book.
Lisanti expresses his disappointment that Tiffin never achieved the superstar status of contemporaries like Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch. The author makes a persuasive case that Tiffin didn't acquire the roles that she deserved and didn't acquire the recognition that she deserved. It is the unfortunate way of Hollywood. An actor's career in the film industry can be scuttled by mistimings, misgivings, misperceptions, and misfires.
After the actress' strong start in Summer and Smoke and One, Two, Three (both 1961), Tiffin's bosses at Twentieth Century Fox designated her to play light and predictable roles in escapist formula pictures. There were the usual teenage beach party frolics and the unending three-girls-looking-for-romance romps. Lisanti contends that Tiffin, an ingénue who was both pretty and funny, confused producers, whose tendency at the time was to squeeze actors into safe niches. They simply couldn't find a niche in which Tiffin would fit.
At the time, competition was fierce for a young actress in Hollywood. This is a running theme in the book. In the last ten years, I am not sure that Scarlett Johansson has had to fight off as many rival actresses for roles. I remember once seeing E. J. Peaker on an episode of That Girl and thinking that the show would have been a lot better if she was the star rather than Marlo Thomas. I then began to think of many other actresses who would have been funnier, more believable and more sympathetic as the series’ star than Thomas. Of course, Thomas vaulted over many obstacles with the help of her superstar daddy Danny Thomas. It's just how it is.
In the end, sheer talent is never enough. You need drive and ambition. You need strategy and marketing. You need a resilient spirit and a scheming mind. You need, as Thomas, a powerful supporter. And, of course, you always need luck.
Tiffin did not always serve her best interests. She lacked the ruthless competitiveness of other actresses and she could at times be impulsive in making important decisions. She wouldn't do television because she was uncomfortable with the fast pace of television production. She took herself out of consideration for the Bonnie Parker role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because she got scared off hearing about Warren Beatty's womanizer ways. She moved out of the United States because she was desperate to put distance between herself and her ex-husband.
Much attention has been paid to Tiffin's physical beauty, but Lisanti explains convincingly that there was much more to Tiffin than her looks. The book motivated me to review two of Tiffin's films, One, Two, Three (1961) and The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and it became obvious watching these films that Tiffin was indeed a special talent.
An actor's looks, in the end, do not matter much. The other day, I was watching a Columbia Pictures comedy called Who Was That Lady? (1960). The film exceeds any reasonable quota for youthful feminine pulchritude. To start, the leading lady of the film was the lovely Janet Leigh. But the film further treats male viewers with a supporting cast that includes Joi Lansing, Barbara Nichols and Barbara Hines. If long legs and curvy hips made an actress, then this film would have the dramatic heft of Little Women. But it doesn't. It doesn't even have the dramatic heft of Robot Monster.
Tiffin was a genuinely talented actress. It is a point that Lisanti makes well, which is what makes this a fascinating and worthwhile book. The book is especially engrossing when it details Tiffin’s experiences dealing with randy leading men, nastily competitive female co-stars and hopelessly inept directors. It is a period drama of a period that has received great attention in recent years. I kept expecting attractive bi-coastal actress/model Tiffin to have a run-in with attractive bi-coastal adman Don Draper.
I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff's new book, "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy." Nesteroff proves my long-held opinion that comedy has a rich history. His book is well written and well researched and it provides a fascinating history of stand-up comedy. Nesteroff relies on extensive research to shed a light on long-forgotten performers. His astute account of Frank Fay's career is one of my favorite parts of the book.
I have to say, though, that I do not agree with Nesteroff on every point that he makes. I disagree with his assertions that drugs make comedians funnier, comedy never ages well, and the hippie movement created a marvelous renaissance that is immune to criticism.
We have truth in labeling when it comes to the "Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels" part of the book's title. Comedians do not emerge from these pages as endearing figures. They are egocentric, temperamental, rude, vulgar, angry, anxious, insecure, paranoid, deluded, bitter, self-destructive, alcoholic, and drug-addled. The passage of the book that left the most lasting impression on me was the following:
Buddy Hackett abandoned [Lenny] Bruce after his first drug bust. "The first time that Lenny got busted in Philadelphia, I called Buddy," says comic Frank Man. "I said, 'You hear what happened to Lenny?' He said, 'Yeah, I heard.' I said, 'What can we do to help him?' He said, 'I'm not going to do anything to help him! He’ll probably stick a needle in my kid’s arm!' That was the end of the friendship between Buddy Hackett and Lenny Bruce."
Many of these comedians displayed personal habits so repulsive that, as Hackett suggested, their appearance should compel a right-minded person to hide their children. Hackett, himself, was known to crazily pull out a weapon when he got angry. The book documents incidents in which Hackett shot up a car in a hotel parking lot, shot a picture off a wall in a green room, and flung a knife at another actor on a movie set. I'd say that, if you hung out with Hackett, you'd be wise to watch that the funny guy didn’t fire a bullet into your kid's leg. It might just be that comedy is a form of insanity. Pagliacci let us know that, when you strip away the clown make-up and the funny costume, you just might reveal something underneath that is dark and ugly.
I have devoted my blog to celebrating the work of comedians. But, I admit, celebrating a comedian for their work is a far easier task than celebrating a comedian for their personal behavior. I couldn't love a comedian more than I love Phil Silvers, but reading stories about Silvers' gambling addiction could if I let it poison my affection for the man. The compulsive gambler is not, by anyone's standards, a beloved figure in our culture. He is, to use the words of Casino's Nicky Santoro, a "lowlife" and a "degenerate." It is disturbing to consider the possibility that our enjoyment of comedy comes down to having our funny bones tickled by lowlifes and degenerates. But I realize that it is better I enjoy Silvers' comedy without ruminating over Silvers' gambling activities. And maybe there was a lot more to Silvers' personal life than his gambling.
No one comes out untarnished in "The Comedians." Jack Benny inevitably turns up in histories of vaudeville, radio and television as a saintly figure. He wasn't an alcoholic. He wasn't a womanizer. He wasn't a gambler. He treated his staff well. He maintained a stable and happy marriage. He was everyone's friend. This is the first show business history that I read that casts Benny in a less than flattering light. He was a plagiarist. He was a jewelry smuggler. He bad-mouthed the Marx Brothers. He gave shitty career advice to Silvers.
Of course, an argument could be made that the gossipy tome focuses the Hubbel Telescope on the comedy community's blemishes. And maybe most people like it that way. Hedda Hopper said, "Nobody's interested in sweetness and light." But there is a difference between a warts-and-all account and an all-the-warts-all-the-time account.
I had an editor who was willing to publish my Lloyd Hamilton biography if I removed all of the material about Hamilton's alcoholism. He thought it would be better if I focused the book on Hamilton's work. But I disagreed. The plain and simple fact was that Hamilton was a great artist and a great drunk. Those two aspects of the man had to be presented in a balanced way to accurately tell his story.
Honestly, this is just my personal impressions as a comedy enthusiast. I offer these thoughts nothing more than a caveat. It is in no way meant to diminish Nesteroff's fine work or to diminish the likely enjoyment that you will have reading his book.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope essentially involves a glumly introverted boy meeting a wildly extroverted girl, who manages through her unremitting antics to teach her new acquaintance how to enjoy life. The film generally credited with originating this formula is the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938). But a sexually enchanting dream partner, girl or boy, is not needed to make this sort of film work. Buddy comedies relied on the same premise long before a new wave of rom-com auteurs revived the Baby formula and ran it into the ground. Consider The Producers (1967), The In-Laws (1979), and every Francis Veber comedy from A Pain in the Ass (1973) to Ruby & Quentin (2003).
Hollywood varied this premise to a limited extent. The main idea behind these films has always been that, despite the constant arguments and misunderstandings, the introvert and extrovert belong together. We are asked to believe that these men, with their crucial differences, serve to temper one another and achieve success that neither man could achieve on their own. So, for the purposes of a funny and satisfying story, this duo operates in a normal and proper way to achieve their goals and come to a happy ending. If the filmmakers did their job well, the happy experience that the duo enjoys on screen is supposed to translate to a happy experience for the people sitting in the audience. But is this at all realistic?
The characters in these films are not always identified as introvert and extrovert. One might be called "repressed" and the other might be called "free-spirited." One might be presented as "the timid novice" and the other might be presented as "the larger-than-life old hand." A. A. Dowd of the A. V. Club noted that Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015), the latest introvert-meets-extrovert buddy comedy, "follow[s] a square seduced by the charms of a pretentious cool kid." It is, no matter the character designations, essentially the same story.
Let's talk about Mistress America. Baumbach is refreshing in the way that he deconstructs this sort of relationship. The director specializes in portraying painfully dysfunctional characters in painfully dysfunctional relationships. Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "[H]is characters are often so delusional or bitter or ignorant or self-aggrandizing or otherwise unpleasant that I find myself watching certain scenes through the cracks between my fingers." These type of characters are exposed in full form in Mistress America. The deficiency of the film's delusional and self-absorbed characters is obvious from the start. Seitz wrote, "[Brooke] and Tracy match up in a way that they probably both think is marvelous but that quickly shows its downside: they aren't really talking to each other, but having adjacent monologues, with each waiting for a turn to chime in and talk about themselves." How could these characters ever produce effective teamwork?
At first, the introvert-meets-extrovert formula is applied conventionally to Mistress America. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman, is feeling lonely as she tries to adjust to living away from home. Her mother recommends that she call her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Joe Neumaier of the Daily News wrote, "Tracy is expecting maybe a tour guide to New York. What she gets is a life force. Brooke is a ditsy moving windmill, never doing one thing when she could be doing four things. . ." It isn't often that a character in a film is described as a "windmill," but many critics saw the high-voltage and coolly self-absorbed Brooke as something less than human. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called her "a dynamic human whirligig." The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper called her a "non-stop whirling dervish and talking machine." Roeper added, "[Brooke] has an opinion about everything, is in the middle of a half-dozen AMAZING projects and seems to know all the coolest people and all the best places in New York."
In other films, everything miraculously works out for the extrovert no matter how reckless and ill-conceived their actions are. But no divine force acts to protect Brooke. Her downfall is inevitable. Roeper wrote, "The problem with Brooke is she’s a human mirage. . ." This free-spirited narcissist is dazzling in the first act, exasperating in the second act, and depressing in the third act. San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle was not pleased that Brooke was denied Holly Golightly’s happy ending. He wrote, "As an artist, [Baumbach] is attracted to dreamers and fantasists, but can’t resist puncturing their illusions and presenting them as losers. He pities his characters, and his pity has nothing to do with sympathy." Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Baumbach wants to celebrate this charismatic gadfly but also take her down a peg or two."
We have come to expect from odd couple comedies that, during the course of the couple’s exhilarating misadventures, the initial animosity between the two will dissipate and a joyful comradeship will develop in its place. But that doesn’t happen in this case. Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter called the film "a girl-bonding-and-breaking tale." The joyful bonding that occurs at the start of the film disintegrates into bitter ashes by the final scene.
Filmmakers cannot resist the temptation of showcasing a flashy character. They know that a character with a spirited nature will create action and make a film more vibrant. But, beyond the vigor, enthusiasm and sparkle, there isn’t always much about the flashy character to admire. They are undisciplined and unfocused and their spirited ways tend to lead only to chaos, pain and failure. In the end, this is the sad and honest message of Mistress America.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I do not always get along well with extroverts. This likely has colored my perspective of introvert-meet-extrovert films.
When I think of extroverts, I think of my Uncle Sonny. My uncle may be 81 years old but he acts as if he is 12. I have dedicated my book about the man-child to my uncle. This could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment, but the man was in truth an ongoing inspiration for the book. And, don't get me wrong, I do appreciate his many good qualities and I do have love for him. But our differences often create trouble.
One day, I became terribly irritated with my uncle. I don’t remember what got me mad, but I am sure that it wasn’t a single incident. I was so fed up with him that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him. He explained the problem to my mother succinctly: "Anthony is an introvert and I am an extrovert." He made it clear that he didn’t think much of the introvert. His unsophisticated analysis of the introvert came down to one sentence: "They sit there and look at everyone." My uncle believes that it is the dynamic life force of the extrovert that makes the Earth turn on its axis. He doesn't, in any way, share my view that mankind's greatest accomplishments have come from the quiet observer. Probably, neither of us is right.
I say without hesitation that my uncle is the most extroverted person that I have known in my life. His antic, attention-seeking behavior grates on my nerves at times. He, as a classic extrovert, likes to seek out external stimulation. He derives fulfillment from interacting with other people and engaging in rousing activities. The most flashy, high-spirited extrovert can be categorized as an adventurous personality type. They become terribly bored unless they are getting into mischief and taking risks.
One morning, I went with my uncle to a convenience store. After I paid for my breakfast croissant, I found him outside the store smirking like Peck's Bad Boy. He told me that he walked out of the store without paying for his coffee and no one even noticed him. "Why would you do that?" I asked him. He didn’t answer me. Stealing the coffee had given him a thrill. He was enjoying himself so much that I doubt he even heard my question.
It makes me think about society in general. Our political differences may not be philosophical. Maybe, the conservative vs. liberal war comes down to a war between introvert and extrovert or a war between left-brainers and right-brainers. It would be nice to think that the two groups could complement one another and develop a joyful and trouble-free comradeship just like in the movies.
Georg Renken, a Max Linder authority, contributed valuable research to my recent article on the mirror routine. Now, Mr. Renken has come forth with additional information on Linder that you might find interesting.
In 1906, Pathé Frères made history in their efforts to establish the film industry's first comedy stars. They started out by introducing André Deed and then, only months later, they brought forth to the public Max Linder. Their goal, in each instance, was to present a familiar figure that audiences would be glad to revisit week after week.
The company did not see a need to note the actors’ names in their film titles or promotional literature until 1910, but Renken found an exception to the rule in 1908 ads that were published in a Brazilian newspaper, Gazeta de Noticias. Linder was referenced in the ads by his full professional name, but Deed was referenced simply as "Did." The ads have allowed Renken to identify missing credits for both actors. More interesting, he discovered from the ads in Gazeta de Noticias as well as a Portugal newspaper that Linder and Deed appeared together in at least three films. None of these films has been known to survive, but significant information about the films has been provided by catalog summaries, periodical ads and press reviews.
My main interest has been to determine the roles that the comedians played in these films and the way in which they interacted. This has proven to be an impossible task. The extensive plot information that is available on the films fails to link specific actors to specific roles. All that I am left with is conjecture.
The first film is Unwilling chiropodist (released originally in France as Pedicure par amour and released later in Brazil as Callista A Força). The ad reads: "Resounding apotheosis of laughter and intense joy. Ultra comical. Scenes represented by celebrated actors DID and Max Linder. Success of hilarity." The "celebrated actors" reference and the fact that the actors were noted by name is proof that the comedians had attained early star power in Brazil. In this instance, we have overwhelming evidence that Linder played the lead role in the film. The film was re-released in 1913, by which time Linder’s name was being prominently featured in ads. Also, a still from the film was published in a 1947 film history book. Linder, in his suit and top hat, is an unmistakable figure in the photo.
Linder certainly laid claim to the film’s central comedy business, which he turned into a trademark sketch. He performed it on stage from 1912 to 1914 and he featured it in yet another film, Max pedicure (1914).
The plot of Unwilling chiropodist is appropriately silly. Linder is carrying on an affair with a married woman. When her husband arrives home unexpectedly, Linder pretends to be a chiropodist who has come to attend to the wife's aching feet. Soon, he is having to tend to the husband's bunions and cut his toenails. The Moving Picture World reported, "Then comes the man servant, the grocer, the coachman, they all require his skill and attention, and at last, unable to stand the strain any longer, our sham doctor rushes out into the street, much to the amusement of the revenged husband." My guess is that Deed played one of the men who got a foot treatment from Linder.
The second film is Fake doctor (released in France as Consultation improvisee). The ad reads, "Extra comical strip, real factory of laughter, whose result of the most frank joy. Will reign amongst the honorable viewers. Represented by Max Linder and Did." New York Dramatic Mirror reported, "The best Pathe comedians work in this picture," which also suggests a joint effort by Linder and Deed. We again have a false identity plot. When the doctor is called away to the scene of an accident, his servant takes great pleasure in putting on the doctor's white coat and prescribing a variety of medications to the doctor's patients. The servant role is well suited to Linder, who specialized in imposter roles. We already saw Linder pretend to be a chiropodist and do his best to bluff his way through foot treatment. How hard would it be to imagine him pretending to be doctor and dispensing pills? Although the dandy character that the comedian came to epitomize was too self-important to ever work as a servant, his preoccupation with status and his obsession with impressing the ladies often caused him to pretend that he was someone that he really wasn’t.
The third comedy, The Music Teacher (released in France as La maitresse de piano), did not reach Portugal until December, 1910. At the time, an ad that appeared for the film in a Portugal newspaper announced: "We call the attention of the public to this film, interpreted by the celebrated artists Dide and Max Linder." In this film, a young man falls in love with a pretty young woman, but her father denies him entrance to their home. The young man is desperate to see his beloved lady. As it turns out, his solution is to dress in drag so that he can pretend to be the young woman's music teacher. Yes, essentially the same plot was used decades later for Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). This plot is well suited to Deed. In fact, Deed went on to use the same plot for a 1911 comedy called Foolshead, Lady of Company (released originally in Italy under the title Cretinetti dama di compagnia). Also, Linder was not a comedian who tended to engage in drag business. The comedian dressed as a woman to undo a rival in the 1913 comedy Le duel de Max. Otherwise, I cannot think of one other time that he donned a dress.
Unfortunately, I cannot figure the role that Linder had in The Music Teacher. But it is at least good to know that, in this brief farce, film's earliest comedy kings got to join forces to deliver "frank joy" and a "resounding apotheosis of laughter."
Renken identified Deed as the leading man of another 1908 comedy, The Pretty Typist (released in France as La jolie dactylographe). The actor can be clearly identified in this photo from the film. He is the forlorn office clerk who stands to the left of the other actors.
The film’s plot involves Deed's character becoming enamored of the titular pretty typist. The Moving Picture World reported, "As soon as he sees her at work on the typewriter, he begins to smile in her direction from his high stool, showing plainly that first sight is enough for him. His arms now begin to fly about, his heart like[wise] flails, and in his enthusiasm he falls from his chair to the floor. . ." He plans to talk to the typist, but he cannot take a step in her direction without his no-nonsense boss getting in the way. The boss stands in the center of the photo ejecting another of the typist’s admirers from the office. At first, I thought that the boss looked like Linder. But the boss is significantly taller than Deed. I could find no record of Deed’s height, but I do know that Linder was 5' 2" and few men could stand next to him and appear to be shorter. Is the boss Linder or not? I ask that you judge for yourself.
|Fred Stone and Ella Hall|
|Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels in Look Out Below (1919).|
But, a year before Look Out Below, another comic actor looked to attract audiences by following Fairbanks' daring example. The actor was Broadway star Fred Stone. Stone and Fairbanks shared the same distributor - a short-lived Paramount subsidiary called Artcraft Pictures Corporation. It could have been because Artcraft wanted to duplicate their success with Fairbanks that they put demands on Stone to be as robust and nimble as Fairbanks.
Publicists made it clear that stunts had the greatest prominence in Stone's first two Artcraft films, The Goat (1918) and Under the Top (1919). The stories had been specifically designed to give Stone an excuse to perform midair feats. Exhibitors Herald wrote of The Goat, "[Stone] makes his bow as a film star in a hodgepodge play written to exploit his gymnastics more than his acting ability." A full-page ad in Moving Picture World showed Stone sitting atop a flagpole. The stunts went over well with critics and exhibitors, but weak stories hampered the success of these films.
|Fred Stone and Rhea Mitchell|
The following two sentences from the American Film Institute catalog adequately summarized the plot for The Goat: "Chuck McCarthy, an intrepid young ironworker, longs to become an actor, despite the protests of his girl, Molly O'Connors, and his family. In dashing up the frame of a building to catch actress Bijou Lamour's runaway pet monkey, he attracts the attention of the studio managers, who make him a stuntman." The highlight of the film involved Stone acting as Lamour's stand-in for an ice skating scene. Stone said that his ice skating tricks were intended as a spoof of the type of the tricks performed by German ice skater Charlotte Oelschlägel.
A Motion Picture News critic, P. S. Harrison, thought well of the film. He noted, "The Goat is a succession of comedy and starling stunts, never forgetting a very human little love story that runs through to tie up the more spectacular events." Unfortunately, I could find no one else who shared Harrison’s fondness for the film.
Edward Weitzel, a Moving Picture World critic, wrote, "Fred Stone is not at ease in the quiet scenes, but performs all the stunts with his well-known skill."
An exhibitor in Springfield, Illinois, expressed major dissatisfaction with the film in a letter to Motion Picture News. He wrote, "Fred Stone's first photoplay proved a disappointment when shown at the Gaiety on Sunday, October 6. Nearly all the fans had seen Stone on the stage in some of his great plays, and probably expected too much. He did several new stunts, none of which had ever been equaled in daring, but the story was not the kind that took with the film patrons. There were several good laughs, but not near as many as in Fairbanks' plays. It is hoped that succeeding Stone pictures will be better, but this is hardly looked for now, as it was figured that the best of the three would be released first."
The Film Daily critic could not have thought less of the film. He reported that there was "hardly enough [story] for a split reel." The critic said that the film is "painfully forced hokum [that] merely serves as a skeleton for athletic stunts of the star. [The film is] obvious and unfunny [and] utterly fails to stir anything." But he was not through with his merciless drubbing of the film. He continued:
As motion picture entertainment, this flops miserably. Fred Stone's stunts on the "legit" with the late Montgomery got over great — on the stage, but they utterly fail to stir anything on the screen because our various stars of the films have done these same stunts to death for several years and most of them have gone him several points better.William Sievers of St. Louis’ New Grand Central Theatre gave the most succinct opinion of The Goat when he told Exhibitors Herald, "Very poor story for Stone and one that does not please."
The story, if it can be called such, was obviously constructed to exploit the aforementioned stunts of the star and is the same old stuff that we've had many times in the past; there is no plot, no climax, no love interest—nothing, in fact, to offer an excuse for it having been produced in the first place.
The plot was again weak for Stone's second feature, Under the Top. Critics were especially annoyed that the hero's adventures turn out in the end to be a dream. It is an old trick that audiences rarely enjoy. The Film Daily critic noted, "[The film] is too forced to be convincing, a condition that authors John Emerson and Anita Loos, apparently recognized, otherwise they would not have turned it into a dream, which doesn't help even a little bit. The plot hasn't the dream quality. There aren't the elements of fantasy and poetry needed in a dream story. . ."
Stone plays Jimmie, a house painter who fantasizes of one day becoming a tightrope walker in the circus. The Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[Jimmie] combines his skill with the brush with his cleverness at doing acrobatic stunts, and is able to paint a church tower while amusing the population with a series of hair-raising feats in midair." The Film Daily reported, "Stone's introduction as a house painter, pursuing his calling at the perilous point of a church steeple, is effective." Jimmie falls in love with Pansy, the daughter of a circus owner. When Pansy's father dies in a fall, a conniving circus employee plots to cheat Pansy out of the circus by getting her to marry him. Just as the film began with Stone in high place, the film ends with the actor in a high place. IMDb critic Pamela Short wrote, "Pansy's guardians have her hypnotized so that she will marry one of them, but Jimmie steals the marriage license and eludes the pursuing circus hands by doing acrobatic feats to an audience's delight until Pansy emerges from her spell."
The Film Daily critic said of Under the Top (1919): "It's too bad that Fred Stone didn't draw a better story for his second picture appearance. He hasn't yet had a really fair chance to show whether or not his type of comedy can he put across on the screen with the effectiveness that has made his name famous on the stage. In time, Fred may get just the right kind of material: then he ought to start something, for he has a mighty likeable personality and when it comes to trick stunts he's in a class by himself. . . Stone's acrobatics are the real thing and, of course, it is highly appropriate that he should appear in a circus picture. Many of your folks may be counted upon to enjoy a number of the scenes, considered individually, even if the production in its entirety leaves a negative impression."
Harold Lloyd, who understood the importance of telling a good story, went on to succeed where Stone had so dismally failed. It is in examining the negative reaction to Stone's features that film historians should feel the greatest respect for Lloyd's well-developed skills as a filmmaker.
Douglas Fairbanks fondness for climbing to the top of buildings inspired high-altitude climbs by a number of dramatic actors, including George Walsh (The Pride of New York, 1917) and William Russell (The Sea Master, 1920).
|Peter Godfrey in The Two Mrs.Carrolls (1947).|
Charles Kenna became well-known in vaudeville for his take-off of the sidewalk pitchman. His pitchman character came out on stage with a sample case and a stand. Once he mounted the case on the stand, he opened it wide to reveal a collection of potato peelers and all-purpose powders. He then furnished the audience with a funny, fast-paced sales pitch. The act was already receiving prominent billing in 1903. Kenna's act was at first known as "The Fakir," an old slang expression for the carnival shill or the street-corner pitchman. But the act was later known as "The Street Fakir,""The Faker" and "The Yankee Faker."
Joe Laurie, Jr., the author of "Vaudeville From The Honky Tonks To The Palace," wrote, "[Kenna] was plenty original and a natural funny man. . . And don't let anybody tell you that the expressions, 'It's an old army game,' and 'Go away, boy, you're bothering me,' belonged to W. C. Fields. It was Charles Kenna who used both these expressions in his act many many years before Fields even talked on the stage."
Kenna, whose real name was Charles McKenna, was born in 1859 in Quidneck, Rhode Island. Sketchy information on Kenna's early years suggest that that Kenna's parents, James and Mary McKenna, worked in minstrel shows in one capacity or another. Kenna made his debut on stage when he was only ten years old. For the next 34 years, he performed as a blackface comedian in a variety of minstrel troupes, including Hi Henry's Minstrel Band, Lucier's Minstrels, Al G. Fields Minstrels, and W. S. Cleveland’s All United Minstrels. He was also a member of a musical comedy act called The Four Emperors of Music.
In 1897, Kenna briefly teamed with Arthur Deming in a double act. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered the following assessment of the team: "Arthur Deming and Charles Kenna are funny and only a fair proportion of their jokes are old."
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Kenna as a "new monologist" in a notice published on April 11, 1899. This newspaper was the only media source at the time that took any notice of the performer.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 16, 1900. Review of appearance at the Novelty Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna [is] a blackface monologist in budget of witty sayings, funny songs and recitations.But then, suddenly, Kenna was receiving prominent billing and widespread notices for an entirely new act. He had gotten rid of the blackface and transformed himself into a unique and dynamic stage personality. He had become a fast-talking, self-assured comic pitchman. It was at this late stage of his life that the veteran entertainer had finally achieved stardom. He maintained favorable reviews for this act for the next 17 years.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February, 1904. Review of appearance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna presented his original one man sketch "The Fakir," and the novelty of the act made a decided hit with the audience. Mr. Kenna has some new talk that is witty, and his act is a most pleasing one.Variety, January, 1906. Review of appearance at Hyde and Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn:
Charles Kenna, "the street fakir," has a first-class monologue when heard for the first time. For a country boy, the second, third or fourth time isn't too often, but all of us in the Metropolitan District were not born amid green fields and mud. To hear Kenna start off with "Watch the little ball — the old army game, you can't win where you can't lose," brings back the recollections with a rush.The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January, 1906. Review of performance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre.
As neat a bit of character study as the vaudeville stage has ever produced in a long time is that offered this week at Hyde & Behman's by Charles Kenna. Much is being said of the popularity of American plays by American authors just now and the bit of Americanism presented by Mr. Kenna must be included in this category. His is a decidedly American effort, depicting a character not to be found anywhere else in the world, a real "Yankee Street Fakir." Not the kind that stands on the curb and sells ordinary merchandise, but the clever follower of the trotting and country fair circuit, who is an orator, comedian, merchant and flim-flammer all in one. Whether Mr. Kenna had personal experience in that line the program does not say, but he has the many idiosyncrasies of the art so pat that many in the great audience last night recognized an old friend. From the moment Kenna appeared on the scene until the finish, he was close to the hearts of the auditors and his act met with a hearty and unqualified success. The entire bill is probably the best seen at the house this season, moving along with pleasing rapidity and with every act a hit.Variety, February, 1906. Review of appearance at the Imperial Theatre, Brooklyn, New York:
Charles Kenna had an imitation of a shell game man that gave him an opportunity for doing almost anything he wanted, and beyond a few stale jokes he did very well indeed.Variety, November 1907. Review of appearance at the New York Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, "The Fakir," in his impersonation of a slick sharper working country towns by the one-night-stand route, was immediately "caught" by anyone who has inhaled the unsullied breezes in the precincts where electricity entered last. Mr. Kenna has selected a humorous character, but it has required a long time for it to be recognized. Broadway, even the non-vaudeville sections which seems to frequent the New York, liked "The Fakir" immensely. The naturalness of Kenna's type brings the enjoyment, while there are many small bits which, though faultlessly true, escape the average uncountryfied metropolitan.Kenna toured with his act through Europe in 1908. On his return to the United States, Broadway producers talked to Kenna about starring in a musical comedy called "The Faker," but the project never materialized.
Variety, March, 1909. Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna scored a complete success with his carefully drawn character sketch of the western medicine "fakir," and the swift patter of flash talk. He has a capital story toward the finish in which he illustrates how different members of a family, all afflicted with a peculiar twist of the mouth, try to blow out a candle. The tale is skillfully worked up to a screaming climax.Variety, November 1910. Review of appearance at the American Theatre, Chicago:
The hit of the show fell to Charles Kenna, away down next to closing, at a time when it looked as though the night would pass without much of importance actually happening. "The Fakir" and his funnyisms kept the audience alternately laughing and roaring. He made good all over the place.Variety, February, 1911. Review of appearance at the American Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna held down "No. 7" and being pestered by a house comedian, one of the "souse" variety, in one of the boxes, he managed to pull a lot of laughs.San Francisco Call, February, 1910. Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre, Oakland, California:
The funniest monologue which has been heard on the Orpheum stage in many a moon is the street faker sketch presented by Charles Kenna. Armed with a fly brush which he kept in incessant motion to the detriment of imaginary insects, Kenna has succeeded in keeping his audiences laughing. He is an admirable mimic, and keeps up a rapid fire harangue which would do credit to the dean of the curbstone medicine orators.Spokane Daily Chronicle, June, 1913. Review of appearance at Pantages Theatre, Spokane:
Charles Kenna's street faker monologue that goes on the Pantages program this week is mighty good stuff. Without any accessories of staging or trick work, Kenna puts over a series of subtle gags, every one of which is in character.Bill of Pantages Theatre, September, 1913.
Charles Kenna, billed as "the street fakir," is a monologist known wherever theatres are known. He is one of the happiest, merriest laugh-producers on the stage and his new performance in which he takes the part of a street vendor selling medicine that will cure everything that mortal flesh is heir to, suits him to perfection.Variety, July, 1917. Review of appearance at the Majestic Theatre, Chicago:
Following [Charles W. Clark] was another male single, but a very welcome one, in the person of Charles Kenna with his delectable and really enjoyable portrayal of "The Street Fakir." There had been so few laughs ahead of him that Kenna's presence was a life-saver, and though he cleverly filled his next to closing spot, he could hardly be expected to hold up the whole bill. His assassination and swatting of countless imaginary flies as he extolled the equally numerous qualities of his magic power, which among other things "perfumes the breath, sharpens the teeth and makes the hair grow," wrung many hearty laughs.
Kenna had to endure many imitators through the years. Clyde Hager, of Hager and Goodwin, appeared on the bill with Kenna at the Majestic. The very next month, he introduced an act in which he monologued as a tent show barker. The act was a blatant copy of Kenna's act. Hager spent most of the next decade working as a radio announcer in various markets, including Cincinnati, Chicago and Los Angeles. During this time, he regularly performed the pitchman act for his radio listeners. Here is a write up on Hager that appeared in Radio Age in September, 1925:
Clyde Hager was taken from WQJ, where he entertained with Jerry Sullivan. His street fakir dialogue, in which he takes the part of a curb vender, selling a genuine rubber garter, and continually warning the crowd: "Keep away from me, boys, you bothah me!" brought him great fame at WQJ and he frequently repeats it at WMBB, to the delight of the listeners.
Variety, August, 1917. Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna kept the house in good humor throughout his stay with the "Street Fakir" monolog, the novel proportions of the specialty practically insuring his success. Kenna is a good showman and gauged his audience to the fractional second on delivery and time. His routine has been greatly improved since his last metropolitan appearance and with the well known lack of good comedy "singles" Kenna should find little or no trouble in landing continual work hereabouts.Variety, June, 1918. Review of appearance at the Hamilton Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, as a street corner salesman, selling insect powder, earned laughs aplenty and was sent over with some to spare.Variety, November, 1919. Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House, New York:
It's a long time since Charles Kenna has been around New York with his fakir turn. Like old wine, Kenna improved with age. Kenna possesses the virtue of being original, a quality that few male singers can successfully claim credit for. His talk went over for a continuous laugh. It's a standard turn that seems as fresh as the day it started way back in the dark ages of vaudeville.And, then, Kenna was gone. This was Kenna’s last known engagement.
|Variety, April, 1920|
Declining health prevented the comedian from continuing his act. Kenna retired to his home in Mansfield, Massachusetts. He died on April 24, 1929.
Other comedians rushed forth to fill the vacuum created by Kenna’s retirement. New pitchman routines were introduced by a variety of comedians, including Jimmie Cooper, Joe Frisco and Charles Robinson. Robinson went as far as billing himself as "The Street Fakir." But none of these copycat acts had the staying power of Kenna’s act.
One night in April, 1920, a one-armed singer/comedian Al Grossman came on stage with a sample case and a stand and engaged in a pitchman monologue much like Kenna had. It upset the performer when Variety accused him of patterning his act after Kenna's act. He wrote a letter to Variety that read, in part:
My offering is dissimilar to Mr.Kenna's. The street fakir harks back to days long before Mr. Kenna. The idea was first used in "The Runaways" at the Casino fifteen years ago.Is this true?
"The Runaways" debuted on Broadway on May 11, 1903. Al Fields was billed in the program as "Fleeceum, A Patent Medicine Fakir." He was introduced in the show hanging around with touts and bookies at a racetrack. The Plattsburgh Sentinel noted that Fields distinguished himself in the role with "his long legs and battered hat." But it is unknown the exact nature or function of the Fleeceum role.
Let us now move ahead six months. The earliest known record of Kenna's act was this ad that was published in November, 1903.
Such a prominent ad suggests that the act was well-established by this date. Kenna could have been performing the act for the last year or two. Or, maybe he hadn’t. No information that I turned up in my research can confirm this one way or another. From the incomplete timeline that I was able to create, it remains possible that Kenna acquired inspiration for his act from "The Runaways." But I am still willing to believe that the act had been, for the most part, originated by Kenna. The critics unanimously credited Kenna as the originator of the act and I feel inclined to believe that they knew what they were talking about.
Mr. Al Fields, himself, was an undistinguished presence on the vaudeville stage. We have no record of him ever including his Fleeceum business as part of his act. Instead, he toured with an act called "The Misery of a Hansom Cab," which cast him as a funny cab driver. The act involved Fields getting into patter routines with a straight man riding in the backseat as a passenger. It was like the old bit that Burns and Schreiber performed on television in the 1960s.
Clyde Hager, the aforementioned radio announcer, had free reign to tour the vaudeville circuits with his pitchman bit once Kenna had passed from the scene. Hager reintroduced his stage act in a 1929 Olsen and Johnson revue, "Merry Mad Minutes of Monkey Business." Kenna once said that stage producer William Hammerstein hired him after he saw him selling potato peelers on a street corner. Hager now told a story that was a nearly identical, the only difference being that he left out the producer’s name. Hager, as Kenna, wanted his fans to believe that he was a 100-percent authentic, experience-hardened pitchman.
He later toured with the act on his own. His reviews were generally good, although not as enthusiastic as Kenna's reviews.
Variety, June, 1930. Review of appearance at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle:
Clyde Hager had 'em with his street vendor sales talk, the lingo being good, although some of the jokes are bewhiskered.Exhibitors Herald-World, September, 1930. Review of appearance at an unnamed Chicago Theatre:
Clyde Hager kept the house in an uproar from the time he landed on the stage. . . His long suit was selling some kind of an economic potato peeler, and when he actually peeled a poor little offensive spud right on the stage, it brought a howl.In 1933, Hager was singled out in Variety for performing his "familiar street-hawking act" at the Pitt Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Variety April, 1935. Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre, New York:
Clyde Hager, the pitchman, was okay on second. His "go way from me boys, you bother me"' is always worth a giggle. Hager surprised himself last summer by getting into a legit show — 'Keep Moving' at the Forrest, but he intends sticking to vaude.Eddie Cantor had Hager perform his routine in his feature film Strike Me Pink (1936). This was the year of the pitchman in Hollywood. Other pitchman characters were affectionately spotlighted in two other releases of the year, Come Closer, Folks and Gift of Gab.
|Pat O'Brien played a pitchman in I Sell Anything (1934).|
Variety, August 1936. Review of appearance at the Met Theatre, Boston:
Clyde Hager, in his ace pitch man single bit fits in nicely to the trey, spattering the front row with potato peelings as he demonstrates his first gadget, and shellacking his stooge with lather in another demonstration. Hager's line is rich, his delivery is very good, but he did not register in the far-off seats. Appeared to be too far away from the mike. Although consistently the, pitch man, Hager would do well to work up a punchy blow-off.Variety June, 1937. Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre, Washington D.C.:
Hager, the Street Fakir, has house in palm of his hand when he walks onto ramp with stand and suitcase for turn as pitchman. Idea is rare enough here for him to work straight and wow 'em throughout the act, but he launches into broad farce, smearing stooge with cold cream, and plenty off-color gags that get the laughs, but alienate the cricks [i. e. elite] and smart crowd.Variety, October, 1937. Review of appearance at the Salt Lake City Theatre, Utah:
Clyde Hager's pitchman act, which he has been spieling for nearly 20 years, remains as the top applause garnerer of the bill. Gabbing somewhat in a W. C. Fields tone, Hager calls upon such potent pitch bon mots as 'Go way, you bother me,' and 'You say you're not satisfied' to lift his act for a solid click. Uses two stooges, one a cop to move him along the stage, and the other is spotted in audience but steps on the stage when the cue comes.For the next several years, Hager performed the pitchman act in two of Olsen and Johnson's Broadway shows, "Hellzapoppin" and "Sons o' Fun." He then teamed with Wally Brown to perform comedy patter routines on the Kate Smith radio show. By this time, the comedian had reportedly obtained a copyright on the catchphrase "That’s all, brother!"
Billboard, January 24, 1942. Review of appearance at the Flatbush Theatre, Brooklyn:
Clyde Hager, with his familiar pitchman routine, gets belly laughs from men and embarrassed titters from ladies.From 1942 to 1944, Hager performed his pitchman act as part of the floorshow at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. He left the club to tour army camps as a member of the Camel Caravan. The following notice appeared in North Carolina's Cloudbuster newspaper on April 15, 1944:
[Clyde Hager] will entertain with his pitchman routine, exaggerating the styles of the street corner vendors selling everything from gold watches to hot perfumes for a dime.Hager was still touring with the Camel Caravan when he died of a heart attack on May 22, 1944. He was 58 years old.
|Tommy Bernard and Ransom Sherman pitch their medicine show wares in Yankee Fakir (1947).|
It wasn't long after Hager’s death that another successor to Kenna's comedy legacy came along. The succession was clearly noted in a Variety article published on September 15, 1948:
And then there is Sid Stone, now a rather familiar Tuesday night figure on the Texaco television hour with his pitchman commercial for his sponsor. Here he does the pitchman. He includes the "get away, boys, you bother me,'' and all the rest of it so well identified with the late Clyde Hager. It's said that Hager in turn had "adopted" the idea from a yesteryear vaudevillian, Charles Kenna.Stone performed the pitchman role on Milton Berle’s "Texaco Star Theatre" from 1948 to 1951. He furnished the familiar lines. "You say you want more for your money?" he'd say. "Tell you what I'm gonna do."
The fascination with the pitchman continued in the coming decades. In the 1950s, John Steinbeck and George Frazier wrote a musical about an elixir salesman called "The Wizard of Maine." Bing Crosby performed a pitchman musical number in The Country Girl (1954).
The pitchman's ways were ideally exemplified by Robert Preston in The Music Man (1962). And, of course, let us not forget about Johnny Carson's Art Fern. . .
or Dan Aykroyd’s Super Bass-O-Matic pitchman.
My article includes assertions by Joe Laurie, Jr. that W. C. Fields appropriated parts of Charles Kenna's pitchman act. Above all else, Fields has frequently been credited with using Kenna’s catchphrase "Go away, kid, you bother me!" The pitchman is meant to deliver the line to an intrusive small boy whose questions or comments are interfering with his patter. But I could find no instance of Fields speaking this line in a film. Was this a misattribution much like claims that Cary Grant said "Judy, Judy, Judy" or Jimmy Cagney said "You dirty rat"? I consulted two Fields biographers, James Curtis and Simon Louvish. They, too, were unaware of an instance in which Fields ever recited this line. They did, however, contribute their thoughts on this subject, which helped me to compose my final assessment.
Being as irascible as he was, Fields was quick to shoo away the frequent pests that came near him. But he tended to mutter simply, "Go away, go away." He might say this or something similar to a small child.
But he would just as easily say it to a dog (The Barber, 1933). . .
or a fly (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941).
The closest that he came to Kenna's famous line occurs in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939). While performing a ventriloquist act for a carnival crowd, Fields snarls at a boy in the front row, "Away, boy, you draw flies!"
The Kenna line may have become associated with Fields by way of cartoons, including Little Blabbermouse (1940) and Shop, Look, and Listen (1940).
As of the 1920s, the sidewalk pitchman had been around for more than a hundred years. People were familiar with this man's spellbinding spiels. If you want to know the pitchman's rich history, you can read Brooks McNamara’s "Step right up" or Ann Anderson’s "Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones." Kenna had no patent on the pitchman as a comic character. Comedians had a right to adapt this character to their own personal style and perspective. I think that is what Fields did. Fields originated the role of Prof. Eustace McGargle, a blustery carnival barker, in a 1923 Broadway musical, "Poppy." He portrayed variations of this character, on and off, for the remainder of his career.
We have no recording of Kenna's act, but we do have recordings of his most prominent imitators, Hager and Stone. Their fast-talking pitchman characters are notably different than the pitchman characters that Fields brought to the screen. Fields delivered his spiels with a raspy drawl, which was quite different than Hager or Stone's snappy patter. But, to be perfectly honest, I cannot say that the acts are entirely dissimilar. Judge for yourself.
I welcome you to Man-Child Week on Anthony Balducci’s Journal. My blog will be dedicated for the entire week to celebrating the release of my new book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.
I have set out chips and dip for the celebration. Also, I hired a bartender to satisfy your beverage needs. I recommend that you have the bartender prepare you Buddy Love’s favorite drink - an Alaskan Polar Bear Heater. The drink consists of 2 shots vodka, 1 shot run, 1 shot vermouth, 1 shot brandy, 1 shot gin, 1 shot scotch, a dash of bitters, a smidgen of vinegar, a lemon peel, an orange peel, and a cherry.
Please pace yourself throughout our week-long celebration. I know that this is a party and we are here to have a good time, but it is in your best interest to limit your alcohol intake. Remember, controlling your behavior at a party is an important part of being an adult.