Articles on this Page
- 04/27/16--12:31: _"Eraserhead" Isn't ...
- 04/27/16--17:47: _The Unlikeable Prot...
- 05/03/16--07:53: _The Idiot Line: Exa...
- 05/03/16--08:31: _The Wrinkle-Proof C...
- 05/03/16--09:10: _DVD Release: Found ...
- 05/03/16--09:42: _Feminists Go to the...
- 05/03/16--12:36: _Feminists Go to the...
- 05/04/16--07:46: _Feminists Go to the...
- 05/04/16--09:00: _Feminists Go to the...
- 05/04/16--09:51: _"The New Boy": A Pi...
- 06/21/16--15:18: _Tidbits of June, 2016
- 06/21/16--15:27: _Lloyd Hamilton: "Th...
- 06/21/16--15:42: _The Famous Aquainta...
- 06/21/16--15:48: _Laughing with Alice...
- 06/22/16--09:33: _A Walk of Shame for...
- 06/25/16--05:29: _Two Moms on "Yancy ...
- 06/25/16--05:58: _Lost Comedy Teams
- 06/25/16--07:23: _Lloyd Hamilton: Adv...
- 06/25/16--07:43: _Lloyd Hamilton: Pil...
- 06/25/16--08:11: _Henry Lee's "Great ...
- 04/27/16--12:31: "Eraserhead" Isn't So Weird
- 04/27/16--17:47: The Unlikeable Protagonist
- Can I learn from the character's mistakes? This ties in to Mike Nichols'Closer (2004), which Swensen discusses in his article. The film shows how cruelly and completely infidelity can destroy relationships. An adulterer can be the biggest fool, but he might be of interest to the viewer. Anyone who has experienced even a fleeting temptation to cheat on their spouse gets to see a make-believe character on screen cheat on his spouse and see where it leads. If the character destroys their marriage as a result of his cheating, his story will serve as a cautionary tale and reinforce the viewer's faithfulness to his spouse. "See," a man says to himself, "that's why I would never cheat on my wife." The faithful spouse can even feel superior about being a true-blue partner. I should admit that I tried to watch Closer as research for this article, but I couldn't get through more than fifteen minutes of the film. Everyone looked and acted like they were starring in a perfume commercial.
- Let us consider the husband and wife who, in other foolish ways, screw up their marriage. These characters can hold a viewer's interest if, again, the viewer believes it's possible to learn from the character's mistakes. Sadly, most of us have love and we have lost. It is something we want to avoid happening again if we can help it. So, it can be useful to see a couple on screen struggle through relationship problems. Even if these people are assholes, it just might be possible that they have something to teach us. By teaching us how not to love, they might be able to teach us how to love.
- We might be curious about what makes this person the way they are. The explicit objective of Citizen Kane is to dig into Kane's background to discover his motivations.
- The unlikeable protagonist's struggle can be compelling if we think there is hope for the character to become a better person. We don't root for the character as much as we root for the character they might become.
- In the way that we root for the reward of the hero, we can root for the punishment of the villain. This is the reason that so many people wanted to see The Sopranos end with Tony Soprano getting gunned down.
- 05/03/16--07:53: The Idiot Line: Examining "The Idiot Plot"
- He could have called the man on the phone. He did, in fact, have the man's number on speed-dial.
- He could have walked across the street and delivered the newspaper to the man's front door.
- He could have set aside the newspaper and waited for the neighbor to show up.
- 05/03/16--08:31: The Wrinkle-Proof Comedian
- 05/03/16--09:10: DVD Release: Found at "Mostly Lost"
- 05/03/16--09:42: Feminists Go to the Movies, part 1: The Attack on "The Intern"
- 05/04/16--09:00: Feminists Go to the Movies, part 4: The Hour of the Witch's Baby
- 05/04/16--09:51: "The New Boy": A Pioneer Man-Child Comedy
- 06/21/16--15:18: Tidbits of June, 2016
- 06/21/16--15:27: Lloyd Hamilton: "The Speeder" (1922)
- 06/21/16--15:42: The Famous Aquaintances of James T. Powers
- 06/21/16--15:48: Laughing with Alice Atherton
- 06/25/16--05:29: Two Moms on "Yancy Derringer"
- 06/25/16--05:58: Lost Comedy Teams
- 06/25/16--07:23: Lloyd Hamilton: Adventures in Print
- 06/25/16--07:43: Lloyd Hamilton: Pilgrim Son
- 06/25/16--08:11: Henry Lee's "Great Men, Past and Present"
I am not a fan of self-indulgent and pretentious filmmakers who go far out of their way to make a weird film. Aggressively weird films do not speak to me and are, in the end, a waste of my time. But Eraserhead (1977) is amazing because, despite its extreme weirdness, it is an understandable and relatable film. The film's director, David Lynch, wanted the film to reach people even though he knew not everyone would like or understand it. Lynch said, "Each viewer gets a different thing from every film. So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn't speak to them at all. It's just the way it goes."
This is a matter that was astutely discussed by Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson in an article for The Dissolve titled "The five-year nightmare of Eraserhead." Phipps wrote, "[R]e-watching Eraserhead made me aware again of how personal Lynch's films feel, as if they were saying something the director had to say, even if it only makes sense to him. And the wonder of Lynch's films is that they're clearly the work of a singular creator with no interest in watering down what he does for others, but they still find a way to reach so many people."
It is, in its own way, a man-child film. The protagonist, Henry (Jack Nance), is a young man who stumbles forth on the difficult journey to maturity. You can tell that Henry is outgrowing childhood faster physically than emotionally by a simple stock clue - his pants legs are too short for his legs. Mike D'Angelo of A.V. Club wrote, "Attempting to describe Eraserhead tends to be an exercise in futility, but it's easiest to process as a young man's worst fears about impending adulthood. The protagonist, Henry, whose vertical shock of hair makes him look perpetually alarmed, has just had a child with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart). . . Swaddled in bandages and looking more reptilian than human, the baby, or whatever it is, cries piteously day and night, resisting all efforts to be fed or comforted; Mary is so stressed out that she abandons the family, leaving Henry to cope as best he can."
Henry's facial expressions speak volumes to viewers. Vulture's Bilge Ebiri wrote about "a permanent mixture of befuddlement and fear playing out on his face as he confronts responsibility, love, loss, and death." The Dissolve's Scott Tobias wrote, "More crucial to Spencer's appearance, however, is his face, which is as easy to read as the action around him is wildly enigmatic. Anxiety, discomfort, bafflement: That's the repertoire of expressions that settle around his eyes, and make Eraserhead identifiable as a character piece and a mood piece, no matter how far Lynch drifts into the avant-garde. It takes time — and perhaps repeat viewings — to unpack the film's internal logic, but Spencer's basic fears of intimacy, fatherhood, relationships, and the hostility of the world around him are easily and intuitively understood."
Tobias noted that Eraserhead had a strong influence on the Coen Brothers'Barton Fink (1991). The two films do in fact have many similarities. Eric Hoffman, a film critic with on-line magazine Mental Contagion, pointed out that Fink replaces Henry's reptilian baby with something else that needs care and nurturing: a script. The blank sheet of paper in Fink's typewriter cries piteously day and night in a desire to be fed with action and dialogue.
Most obviously, Fink was inspired by Eraserhead's bizarre sound design. Tobias wrote, "Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year of the film's five years in production coming up with dense layers of noise that create a low-level ambience in one scene, and rise up to an overwhelming crescendo in the next. . . Beyond the howling wind, the driving force is the sound of machines: The hums and hisses of a radiator, the clanks and chugs of some unseen factory that seems to operate perpetually beyond the walls. This is the relentless soundtrack of Spencer's life — and of modern life more generally. It sustains (and frequently aggravates) the stress that dictates his waking hours, and the troubled subconscious that dictates his dreams."
How does Fink compare? Vikram Murthl of Criticwire wrote, "The first thing that stands out in Barton Fink is the sound. Skip Lievsay's eerie sound design coupled with Carter Burwell's score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that's slowly falling apart."
Henry lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant apartment building. Fink lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant hotel. Trapped within these ugly and alienating confines, the characters find themselves becoming claustrophobic and paranoid. Kempley wrote of Fink's habitat, "There is the decidedly rank smell of brimstone in the air at the Earle (its slogan is "Stay a Night or a Lifetime"), the primary setting for this latest version of the Mephistopheles story. It's 1941 in Los Angeles and a heat wave has settled over the city like a sticky gravy. It's so hot the wallpaper is peeling off in Fink's room, the paste running down the walls in gooey rivulets. That this is a leaky, living hell there is no doubt. . . The Earle is also alive with the sounds of night: the creaking of ceilings and the protests of bed springs, grunts, thumps, screams, wails and wheezing doors. . . A gurgling, heaving purgatory, it seems a most likely place to teach understanding and punish arrogance."
It is also possible that Lynch and the Coen Brothers were influenced by Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant). Brian Eggert, the author of "Deep Focus Review Blog," wrote, "Polanski specializes in obsessions and madness, particularly those purveyed within a limited space. . . Each [of Polanski's trilogy] takes place in an increasingly confining apartment, the respective protagonists wary of neighbors, sounds, and the history of the building itself. The walls seem to gradually close in and suffocate the interior, whereas the world inside their heads has long since gone mad. These films each force the audience to question the reliability of the central character. Is the world really out to get them, or are their fears a symptom of some mental malady?" Film critic Will McKinley praised Polanski for "his artful juxtapositions of silence and ambient sound." Chris Alfino of Chris Alfino's Film Blog wrote, "Sound design plays a critical role in the way suspense and fear are built. . . Polanski accentuates smaller sounds, sounds like the squishing noises of lips while people are talking. He often mutes other audio tracks at the same time. In such a way, he uses audio to effectively point at what he wants us to pay attention to, even more subtly using it to point at what isn't relevant in a scene (a sort of auditory ellipsis)." Eerie sound design plays an important role in Repulsion (1965). Catherine Deneuve embarks on her descent into madness during an early scene in which she finds herself repulsed by the sex sounds that filter through her apartment's walls. Norman Hale of Movietone News wrote, "The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering."
It was the same with the other films of the trilogy. Hale makes mention of "the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary's Baby."
For the protagonist of The Tenant, the smallest of sounds can be unnerving. He lies awake at night listening warily to the sounds of a ticking clock and a dripping faucet.
Sound effects often heighten the stressfulness of claustrophobic spaces in films. This is evident in films as diverse as Alien (1979), Das Boot (1981) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Would Alien's deadly hitchhiker be as scary without the blasts of steam, the hiss of respirators, or the blaring alarms that warn of the alien's attack? Kelley Baker, author of The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide, said of Das Boot, "You care about the damn boat. . . You hear this submarine creaking, and you hear rivets popping off, and you hear all these sounds that the guys in the submarine are hearing. And it's just like the submarine is a character. And you want that submarine to get up. You don't want these guys to die. You want the submarine to survive all this. . . You want that submarine to live."
Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show podcast thought that the interesting use of sound effects in 10 Cloverfield Lane made the film's claustrophobic bunker "seem almost like a living, breathing entity in and of itself." She referred specifically to the "groaning and clunking [pipes]" and the "wheezing vents."
Like Henry, Fink is a man-child. The Washington Post's Rita Kempley appropriately called Fink "a smug whelp." Fink's understanding of the world, his perception of people and his insight into himself is grossly undeveloped. Christopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, "Turturro's character is manifestly unlikable in almost every way: sanctimonious, patronizing, hypocritical, and utterly devoid of self-awareness." Fink is a New York playwright who has come to Hollywood to write for motion pictures. His first assignment with his new employer, Capitol Pictures, is to write a wrestling picture for gruff, beefy actor Wallace Beery. As he struggles to begin his screenplay, he acts more like a child unable to figure out his homework than a professional writer. He whines to anyone willing to listen about his painful struggle with writer's block.
You can resolve writer's block in one of two ways. First, you can free yourself to write anything that comes to mind. It doesn't matter if it's good or not. Don't judge, just write. Chances are that, when you take a look at what you have written, you will find something onto which you can build. Fink doesn't write a word. Your other option is to get input from outside sources. Fink intends to get help from novelist W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), but he gets so caught up in pontificating to the man about his lofty ideals that he never gets around to asking him about his wrestling script. He should talk to his new friend Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who knows about wrestling and Wallace Beery movies, but he cuts off the man before he can tell Barton anything useful. He could buy a wrestling magazine at the newsstand for inspiration. He choses instead to dawdle like a lazy, irresponsible and unfocused schoolboy. Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the president of Capitol Pictures, lets him know that he needs to "grow up a little." Lipnick sees him as being as useless and helpless as a child. "You ain't no writer, Fink," says Lipnick. "You are a goddamn write off."
As it turns out, Fink's friend Charlie is a serial killer who decapitates his victims. A severed head is likely in a box that he gives Fink to hold. In Eraserhead, Henry finds that his wife's head has been torn off in a photograph.
Later, Henry has a nightmare in which he is decapitated and his head is converted into pencil erasers.
Henry receives solace from a tiny imaginary mutant woman, The Lady in the Radiator.
Barton receives solace from a lady in a photograph.
J. Martin Cassady Jr. noted on a discussion forum that, in each film, a character has problems with an involuntary discharge (puss leaking out of Goodman's infected ear in Barton Fink and blood dripping out of Nance's nose in Eraserhead).
The Coen Brothers have been very much focused on sound design since Barton Fink. Unnerving sounds play a prominent role in their latest film, Hail, Caesar! (2016). The plot centers on the kidnapping of Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The kidnappers drug Whitlock and carry him off to their hideaway. Whitlock awakens in a storage room, stirred by jarring sounds seeping through a closed door. First, he hears a vacuum cleaner, then he hears a barking dog. In the very next scene, Josh Brolin attends a tense lunch meeting at a Chinese restaurant. The occasional sound startles him. A beaded curtain crackles as he passes through. A filter pump in a tropical fish tank burps and gurgles.
This is the type of weirdness that I enjoy.
You can read more on the man-child in my new book.
|Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby (1968)|
I realized as I researched this article that Rosemary's Baby has a couple of connections to The Shining (1980). First, the two films both involve the unraveling of a marriage after the husband and wife take residence in a building that has a long and ominous history. Jack Nicholson, who plays the husband in The Shining, was also considered for the role of the husband in Rosemary's Baby. Polanski rejected Nicholson for a very good reason. The husband is supposed to be corrupted by the various evil forces in the building, but the director believed that Nicholson had qualities that would make him come across as dark and sinister as soon as he appeared. This is actually a complaint that many people, including The Shining author Stephen King, have expressed about Nicholson's performance in The Shining. Polanski wanted an all-American boy-next-door type to play Rosemary's husband. His first choice for the role was Robert Redford. Polanski ended up with John Cassavetes, who ironically seems even darker and more sinister than Nicholson. It is the one flaw of the film that Cassavetes seems to need little coaxing to betray his wife to a witches' coven.
Leigh Janiak said that Rosemary's Baby and The Shining were the main inspirations for the sad and creepy Honeymoon, which involved the unraveling of a marriage that occurs when a couple visits a creepy cabin. It was one of my favorite films of 2014.
A more recent film that falls into this category is The Witch, which also has a family moving into a claustrophobic new home and then being set against each other by malevolent forces that plague the home.
My last observation is that the elevators in these films are creepy.
|Gillian Jacobs in Love|
Yet, these vexatious and unpleasant people are the protagonists that we are supposed to care about. Defenders of this type of humor say that bad behavior makes a character human and, therefore, relatable. But this behavior is usually so outrageous and contrived that it far from understandable, believable, or acceptable. These are not common human flaws. These are, instead, modern comedy flaws, which are something that inhabit their own reality. Characters must behave in extremely strange ways to support the shock comedy, the gross-out comedy, and the cringe comedy. Real people with real problems will not take front and center in an Apatow project. So, Love involves the unpromising romance of dickish Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and asshole Gus (Paul Rust).
A character who is maddeningly awful is not interesting to me. Gus has a compulsion to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Every time he opened his mouth, I found myself thinking, "Please don't talk." It's a problem when a viewer doesn't want the lead character to speak. Why, then, am I bothering to watch this? It is understandable that critics and viewers have preferred to focus their attention on the show's supporting characters, whose good humor and humanity make them far more engaging. Much of the series' strength come from supporting characters who aren't jerks. The best thing that Vulture's Margaret Lyons could say about Gus and Mickey is that they are "surrounded by people who are lightyears more interesting." Bertie (Claudia O'Doherty), Mickey's roommate, is sweet, decent and interesting. Why can't we spend more time with her?
The bad first date trope typically presents very unreal problems. But that is not the case this time. Gus takes Mickey to The Magic Castle. The air conditioning is too cold for Mickey, who asks to borrow Gus' jacket. Gus explains that the theatre has a formal dress code and the ushers will likely throw them out of the theatre if he removes his jacket. The problem here is real, but it is also real simple. The air conditioner in this business establishment is on too high, which is causing a customer a great deal of discomfort. It is clearly a problem that the theatre management has responsibility to solve. If they are unable to solve the problem, the couple has no choice other than to leave the theatre and continue their date in a more hospitable environment. But look what happens instead.
Bad decisions have bad outcomes.
I discuss the Three Stooges' poor problem-solving skills in my new book. But the Stooges did not exist in the context of a serialized storyline. The trio pressed a reset button at the end of every mishap-filled adventure. Love asks us to follow these hopeless characters through a story that lasts more than ten hours.
Jacobs is an exceptionally talented actress who brings a great deal of humanity to her role. This makes the character sympathetic even when the character shouldn't be sympathetic. Jacobs allows the series to sometimes alternate between scenes of outrageously bad behavior and scenes of genuine human struggle. Lyons wrote, "Jacobs's absorbing performance leads us to believe there's a full person under this fidgeting and posturing, but we don't get to see her."
Who can root for these two awful people to get together just so that they can make awful problems for one another?
TV Guide's Sadie Gennis spoke for many regular viewers of the Apatow-produced Girls when she observed that the characters in the show "often felt more like caricatures of monstrosity than watchable anti-heroes." Slate's Willa Paskin noted that, despite the complaints about the characters' behavior in the first season, they behaved even worse in the second season. She wrote, "The series became more obviously satirical and biting, sending up its heroines' increasingly outsized and repugnant behavior." But this just doesn't seem like a send up to me. What is it a send up of? It can't be a send up of assholes because assholes acting like assholes is just reality.
Dunham acknowledged in interviews for Season 4 that it was time to "mature them a bit" so that the series' viewers "have a little more sympathy for their plights." She essentially said that the characters needed to abandon their chaotic lives by relying upon "a little more wisdom" as opposed to "just pure emotion." It is the most important part of being an adult to put logic before emotion. But she didn't want the characters to mature too much because, she said, "it's still a show about girls who are constantly causing disasters." It's a great comic disaster when Lucille Ball unintentionally gets drunk on the Vitametavegamin tonic. But Ball found herself caught up in highly stylized and carefully constructed comic messes. The disasters in Girls are aren't too wacky or too structured. Girls presents real and recognizable lives in shambles. It is simply girls behaving badly, which is most likely to inspire disgust and disapproval rather than amusement.
Did Dunham achieve her goal to make the characters smarter and more sympathetic? Paskin wrote, "[Season 4] of Girls begins in what I think of as the ideal Girls weather: warm with a chance of abhorrent antics. This stands in contrast to Seasons 2 and 3, in which the Girls weather was muggy with a 100 percent chance of an asshole hurricane."
|Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul|
The viewer with the slightest sense of morality will feel emotionally detached from the repugnant protagonists that have come to dominate modern television. It is no real surprise that viewers were relieved of late to have Better Call Saul, yet another asshole-hurricane, shift its focus from shady, undisciplined lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to Jimmy’s principled, caring girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Kim, very much a sympathetic character, is a perfect argument against the anti-hero. A viewer's reaction to a story is greatly heightened when the viewer has warm and caring feelings towards a character. A character who is set apart from a cable drama's dark machinations can serve effectively as an audience surrogate. Kim, in particular, has served an important role in Better Call Saul's catastrophic and insane story about a Caine-and-Caine brother rivalry, a man with electromagnetic hypersensitivity who wears an aluminum foil blanket, and a psychopathic drug kingpin. She has served as the series' moral compass and in this way has grounded the series.
The reactions to Kim assuming a larger role in the series have been enthusiastic. The critics openly love Kim because, well, she's a good person. She is a spring in a moral desert. Typical of the recent comments about Kim have been "amazing run" (Donna Bowman, A.V. Club) and "stolen the spotlight" (Sean Strangland, Daily Herald). Strangland wrote, "The MVP is Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, a resourceful lawyer who provides this show full of dubious characters with its moral center. . . It's fun to see Walter White's old enemies show up from time to time, but it's even better to see Kim Wexler every single week." Katherine Recap of Fetchland wrote, "Once again Kim steals the show in the episode 'Inflatable' and wins our hearts all over again. Mainly we’re happy because she teaches us an important lesson." Gretchen Felker-Martin of Nerdly wrote, "Rhea Seehorn continues to deliver one of the most quietly exciting performances on the air. Her smile when she thinks she’s won Mesa Verde is heart-stopping. . ." It's fun to see Kim. She wins my heart. Her smile is heart-stopping. It sounds for sure like love. But Allison Keene of Collider has said it best:
In Season 1, Rhea Seehorn’s character Kim Wexler stood out for not standing out. In a series with such bigger-than-life male characters . . ., Kim was a voice of reason and a refreshingly normal person. . . Kim is one of the major reasons Better Call Saul Season 2 has been so outstanding. . . Kim has become so much more than just Jimmy’s conscience. . . , and that is wholly thanks to Seehorn’s performance. She’s a hero in a show where there aren’t many, and when it comes to hard choices she would always rather suffer the consequences then do the wrong thing. But in no way does that make her boring or uninteresting or vanilla — one could even argue that she’s the most compelling character exactly because of these traits, and her exceptional dedication to what’s right. She’s someone to admire and cheer for in a world that is so often morally gray. Kim isn’t perfect, but Seehorn has made her one of the most unexpectedly fascinating aspects of an already great series, and has had an incredible season making her quietly become the heart and soul of Better Call Saul.Daniel Swensen, author of the "Surly Muse" blog, defended the unlikeable protagonist (Read his full article here). He wrote, "As long as I find their struggle compelling, I'll get on board with the most twisted, morally repugnant characters imaginable." He added, "I've had many discussions about 'unlikeable' characters in movies and books, and whether or not 'likeability' is a prerequisite for engaging with a story. Personally, I don't believe it is. Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things." He discussed his favorite unlikeable characters, including Darth Vader. He explained:
I think "likeable" is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things. For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals? For most people, I'd venture to say probably not. So what's likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind? Well, I guess I've answered my own question here.Darth Vader is no more likeable than your average Bond villain. We can admire a Bond villain's genius, his power, his style, his way with the ladies. The theme song to Thunderball extols the film's villain, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi). Let me paraphrase the lyrics. Largo runs while other men just walk and acts while other men just talk. He will never stop fighting for what he wants. He is the winner who takes all. My favorite line: "Any woman he wants, he gets." How could I not admire this man? He's a go-getter. He's a charmer. He's a winner.
But, also, Largo kills people. He kills lots of people. I have to, in the end, oppose the man's moral values because I do not support the idea of others dying for his success. As I watch the film, I want nothing more than for Bond to take him down.
Swensen is not the only one who isn't turned off by a really bad guy. J. Gideon Sarantinos, author of "Gideon's Way" blog, wrote, "[Unlikeable characters] awaken our sense of rebellion, individuality, risk and determination to pursue our goals at whatever cost. If we're that invested in such characters, they don't have to be totally likeable. Audiences will root for them just on their boldness."
Root for a murderer? A bad guy's boldness and rebellion is the kicking and screaming baby that we harbor deep down inside of our id. At least, it should exist deep down inside of us as a well-developed ego and superego should be layered thickly over it. I never indulge my id. He's a little bastard. You are wrong if you think that you can put your id on a leash and safely walk it around a park. I prefer an uplifting film about a restrained, moral person than a downlifting film about a bold, villainous rebel.
|Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience|
The Girlfriend Experience, a new Starz series about the high-dollar escort trade, features as its protagonist a call girl who may or may not be a sociopath. The call girl, Christine (Riley Keough), is definitely not the warm and cuddly sort. She doesn't like spending time with other people unless she gets paid to do it. The Verge’s Lizzie Plaugic wrote:
Keough’s portrayal of Christine is calculated, cold, and pristine, like a revamped Patrick Bateman [the mentally disturbed protagonist of American Psycho]. . . Throughout most of the series’ 13 episodes, Keough maintains the same dead-eyed stare almost without interruption. Even moments of intense fear and paranoia are trumped by this blank look, as if Christine is terrified to feel anything other than a deadening emptiness. This stoicism can also make Keough sound like an unintentionally comedic robot. ("I love vacations" is among the best/worst line readings on the show.)Other critics have expressed respect for the character. They see the character's lack of emotion and lack of morality as a form of empowerment. The message, I suppose, is that our humanity makes us weak. The character's remoteness is at times unsettling and always unpleasant. Surely, a real-life escort is more personable than she is.
No critic who is respectful of Christine makes mention of an incident in which the escort is confronted by the wife of a client. The wife (Marie Dame) tells Christine that she and her husband have children. She says it will ruin their marriage if she keeps seeing her husband. Christine doesn't show the slightest emotion. Instead, she sees this as an opportunity to extort the woman for loads of cash. It turns out costing the woman $10,000 for Christine to stop seeing her errant spouse.
Christine could not act more ruthless when she meets the woman at hotel restaurant and accepts a thick envelope of cash. After the woman leaves, she raises a cocktail to her lips and we see her hand tremble a bit. What is that supposed to mean? We have seen this character do something unconscionable. She exploited a distraught and desperate woman. We are now meant to believe that, after the pitiless shakedown that we have just witnessed, she has a glimmer of feeling. Today's television producers expect us to work hard to make a connection with a protagonist. We need to dig through the characters' actions for meaning and relatability as if digging through pony shit to find the pony. No little hand tremble will make me empathize with this greedy, cold-hearted woman.
Swensen also cited Norman Bates and Charles Foster Kane as examples of unlikeable protagonists that audiences find compelling. Let us examine those characters further.
We don't know for most of the film that Norman Bates is a murderer. We just know that he is a devoted son who is trying, in a sad and desperate way, to protect his mother, whose mental illness makes her severely dependent on him.
What does Kane do that's horrible? It is implied that Kane's yellow journalism tactics encourage the United States to go to a war with Spain. But the newspaper man's guilt in this matter is too vague and abstract to have a real impact on the viewer. What else is bad about him? Kane gradually stops talking to his wife at the breakfast table and turns to a mistress for attention and affection. I am no fan of adultery, but this hardly makes Kane despicable. I am sure that Kane would have maintained a loving relationship with his wife if he just knew how to do it. This is his problem. He desperately wants love, but he doesn't know how to get it. We all need love and we don't always know how to get it. It makes Kane a sympathetic character. Can we come up with another bad act on his part? Kane pressures an old theatre critic friend to write a favorable review of his mistress' singing debut. This rates low on immorality scale. The Internet is filled with favorable book and film reviews written by friends.
I can think of five instances when I find an unlikeable protagonist compelling. Let me now list those instances.
More Kim Wexler characters, please.
A writer who has a character do something incredibly stupid to advance a plot is indulging in that hacky, misbegotten writer's gimmick known as the "idiot plot." The idiot plot theory is more impactful than the auteur theory. It is more common in a scriptwriter's work than the "Chekhov's Gun" theory.
It disappointed me that Season 2 of Better Call Saul had seemingly wandered into idiot plot territory. The show's protagonist is an imprudently unethical lawyer, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). A. J. Marechal of Mashable wrote, "[W]e know he's a rule-breaker. He goes rogue from expected attorney conduct, he risks his standing with the American Bar Association with suspect endeavors, and, well, he flat out lies."
In the episode "Amarillo," Jimmy is beginning work as an associate at an upscale law firm, Davis & Main. He acquires help from two film students to produce a television commercial for the purpose of client outreach. He is so pleased with how the commercial turns out that he can't wait to get it on the air and arranges for the commercial's broadcast without bothering to get his boss' approval. This was an idiotic risk because, first, the risk was unnecessary (he could have likely sold his bosses on the idea of the commercial) and, second, the risk was dangerous (it was bound to jeopardize his job). Most critics justified the bad decision by saying that Jimmy is compulsive and self-destructive. An alternate excuse was put forth that Jimmy is, by nature, a cocky risk-taker. AV Club's Donna Bowman noted that Jimmy is simply taking a roll of the dice, confident that his commercial is a masterstroke that is bound to succeed and its "success will cover his sins." It didn't.
The show also focuses on ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). Mike voluntarily gets himself entangled with a Mexican drug cartel. Commenters on Internet boards found this to be idiotic behavior on his part. Here are a couple of typical comments:
"I'm not sure what the hell Mike expected to happen after trifling with the Salamancas."The people who make cable dramas want viewers to believe that the world is a brutal place and their characters will do whatever it takes to survive. I would tell them to stop being soooo dramatic, but being dramatic is exactly their job. So, they contrive a constant stream of dire problems for their characters. These are not the sort of problems that normal people in the real world would ever have to endure. Too often, the labored dread and phony danger that these characters are made to suffer are less reality and more idiot plot.
"I'm not sure whats going on with Mike, but he seems to be deliberately doing things and ignoring the repercussions."
I dislike a contrivance like the idiot plot. The best scripts flow in a natural, credible and perhaps inevitable way. The idiot plot can destroy the natural flow quicker than any other writer's trick. As much as I admire Gunsmoke, I have to admit that the show sometimes had to cheat to create a three-act drama every week. The first act might introduce the bad man of the week. He would be combative, create all sorts of trouble, and express violent threats. More than once, a bad man directly threatened the marshal's life. He would say something like, "You killed my brother, marshal, and I have come to town to kill you." But it was never an imminent threat. So, Dillon left him alone. People begged the marshal to throw the bad man in jail. He would tell them, "I can't do anything unless he draws his gun." Really, where is that written in the penal code? It was illegal to threaten a person with death or bodily injury. It is far worse to threaten a marshal. It was idiotic for a marshal to allow a gunman to make murderous threats without taking immediate action against him. The problem was that, if the marshal took action immediately, the show would have nowhere to go in the second and third acts. The introduction of the bad man was meant to create suspense, which was made to build and build until the story reached the appropriate action-packed climax.
Dillon was based on real-life lawman Wyatt Earp. Casey Tefertiller, author of "Wyatt Earp: The Life Between the Legend," wrote, "Dodge City police records show Wyatt. . . repeatedly making arrests for such offenses as carrying a pistol, drunk and disorderly behavior, and acting in an angry and violent manner. Preventive law enforcement was their means of avoiding problems." He added, "Wyatt Earp understood his duty as a lawman was to prevent trouble. . ." But you didn't have suspense or action if you stopped the bad man before he could even knit his eyebrows.
The real Dodge City wouldn't allow its residents and visitors to walk around town carrying a gun. Visitors had to turn in their weapons at a hotel or a livery stable. But, on Gunsmoke, it would have prevented the series' weekly gunfights if the cowboys couldn't carry their guns into town. It made sense to disarm cowboys before they got drunk and shot up the place. Gunsmoke is accurate in one very important way. It wasn't unusual for a pair of drunken cowboys to get into a gun battle over a saloon girl. This was the most common cause of death in the cowtowns. So, without question, everyone in town was a lot safer with the cowboys having to turn in their guns.
The smart man makes it his priority in life to keep himself and his loved ones safe. If his wits are good for anything, they are good for this purpose. A smart life is a cautious life, which will hopefully deliver a quiet and content life. But a quiet life makes for boring television. So, the producers of weekly television must allow idiocy and recklessness to reign supreme.
Forbes' Allen St. John pointed out to Better Call Saul showrunner Peter Gould that, in his view, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is the smartest character on the show. Gould responded, "We love it when our characters are smart. But sometimes it makes them really hard to write for. We just opened up the writer’s room for Season 3 and I found myself at one point saying 'I wish some of these characters were more stupid. They’re so smart they can see around corners.'" The problem is that a character who can see around corners has the ability to avoid or prevent trouble. He is Wyatt Earp arresting the drunk cowboy who's carrying a pistol.
It could be, though, that I am being too rigid in my thinking. I believe, after watching more recent episodes of Better Call Saul, that I may need to rethink my position on Jimmy. Ed Power of The Telegraph came to a clearer understanding of Jimmy after watching the episode "Inflatable," in which the fresh junior lawyer irrationally walks away from his dream job. Powers explained that Jimmy "has no business as a respectable lawyer" and can do nothing else but "[embrace] his true calling as a huckster in a cheap suit." We, as human beings, are the imperfect creatures that we are. As Powers sees it, we need to just accept Jimmy's inevitable bad choices and "[bear] witness to his fall from grace." Powers referenced a scene in which Jimmy's boss, Clifford Davis (Ed Begley Jr.), expresses his bewilderment and contempt over Jimmy's efforts to sabotage his career and tells Jimmy bluntly that he is an "asshole." Powers agrees with Davis' assessment and wonders if, at this point, Jimmy is someone we can "root for."
I admit, with surprise, that Better Call Saul's showrunners, Gould and Vince Gilligan, managed with skill and finesse to convince me that Jimmy acting against his best interests is not a plot device. Jimmy is compulsive. The man, no matter what he promises to do and no matter what he is supposed to do, just can't help himself. The dysfunctional person, who is present in great numbers in today's world, is a person who is always getting in their own way. People engage in compulsive shopping, compulsive eating and compulsive gambling although it is obvious this type of behavior will bring about a bad outcome. I see these people frequently in my daily life and, although I am often dumbfounded by the things they do, they stand before me living and breathing and I have to accept that they exist. And so it is that I accept that Jimmy exists and he is not merely an extension of the idiot plot.
Don't get me wrong, it isn't easy for me to say this. I have lived such a cautious life that most every dramatic twist in a film or television series strikes me as complete and jaw-dropping idiocy. A person who engages in perilous behavior cannot inspire my understanding or sympathy. I would never borrow money from a loan shark, which a character did in a film that I saw last night. I would never let a girlfriend strangle me for sexual arousal, which is something else that I saw in a film recently. That is not the person that I am. Trust me, I flee doggedly from the mere suggestion of impulsivity and high sensation-seeking behavior. This behavior is so alien to me that I just can't imagine it happening. But it does happen. It is probably happening somewhere on my street as I write this.
I can say now that Jimmy is a believable and uncontrived idiot, but the question becomes if the irresistible urges that compel his idiotic decisions make him a bad person that we shouldn't care about. After watching Better Call Saul's Season Two finale "Klick," I was willing to consider that Jimmy is not as bad as I thought. He may actually be, despite his compulsive idiocy, a good person. I say may because I am just not sure about this. You qualify as a good person if you perform good acts, which means that your actions must have both good intentions and good results. Jimmy seems to only get the good intentions part right. Or does he even get that right? Vulture contributor Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "Like a lot of people, Jimmy thinks good intentions excuse almost everything, and that the phrase 'good intentions' is a synonym for 'what I personally want.'"
|Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean in the Better Call Saul episode "Klick."|
Does it count for something that Jimmy deeply cares about the people close to him? His caring side is never more evident than in the "Klick" episode. Jimmy goes squarely against his own interests to aide his injured brother Chuck (Michael McKean) despite the fact that his brother has been working tirelessly to bring about his downfall. This time, Jimmy's actions are the morally right thing to do. This is the difference between self-sabotage and self-sacrifice. We know in this moment that Jimmy has good in him and that, although he is an asshole, he just may be a lovable asshole. But then we get a twist. His brother ends up betraying him, which doesn't make it seem like he did the right thing after all. This level of misjudgment might qualify as idiocy, but the story remains too nuanced and sophisticated to be dismissed as an idiot plot.
Additional notes: In Defense of Idiocy?
One day, my uncle was talking to his neighbor Joe. Joe knew that my uncle got the newspaper every Sunday. He explained that he needed to look at something in the Sunday paper and he asked my uncle if he could let him have the paper after he was finished with it. It was a simple favor. What could go wrong?
On Sunday, my uncle finished the newspaper. He went out onto his front porch and whistled across the street, assuming that his neighbor would hear him and understand that my uncle had the newspaper for him. This is not in my estimation a good form of communication. I see that my uncle had three more reasonable options in this situation:
My uncle was perplexed that his whistle did not have the desired effect. He went back into the house. Not too long after, he came back onto the porch and whistled again. Still, he got no response.
I should note that my uncle will sometimes stop his car in front of my house and beep the horn. It is usually that he is on his way to the supermarket and he wants to know if he can pick something up for me. It is a nice deed that he's trying to do, but his efforts do not achieve the proper end. I hear car horns all of the time and there's no way that I could know this is him. Later, he will say to me, "I beeped the horn. Didn't you hear me?"
So, it was the same situation with his neighbor and the newspaper. My uncle finally figured it would be a good idea to phone the neighbor. The man's wife answered. "Hey," my uncle said, sounding irritated, "where's your husband? I've been whistling for him!" The wife became annoyed. "My husband is not a dog," she told him.
The wife's remark rubbed my uncle the wrong way. By the time Joe came to pick up the paper, my uncle was terribly worked up. "Who does she think she is?" he asked Joe. "I'm a street kid. I grew up in New York. That's how we'd call a friend. We'd whistle up to his apartment."
I later explained to my uncle that it was fine that he was one of the original Dead End Kids, but he was now an 82-year-old man in 2015 and maybe beeping car horns and whistling was not the most effective form of communication.
My uncle remained resistance to simple logic. He told me that he once had a neighbor who occasionally invited him to his home for breakfast. My uncle always knew that the neighbor had breakfast ready for him because he would come out onto his porch and bang a pot. My uncle said that the pot-banging always got his attention and, even more important, it made him laugh.
As it turned out, my uncle bought himself a whistle and he now blows the whistle for me whenever he comes by my home. My uncle sees it as boring to live life in a serious, reasonable and cautious way. I cannot say for sure if he's wrong or if he's right. I just know that I am a different sort of person. If I ever have any dealings with you, I will be sure to step up to your front door and ring the bell.
Paul Reubens prepared carefully for the television comeback of his comic alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. But Reubens had aged considerably since Pee-wee made his big-screen splash in 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The 62-year-old actor was convinced that his physical changes, including his wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin, would not mix well with his carefully maintained image for the character. So, at his insistence, producers paid a prestigious special effects company two million dollars to use cutting-edge visual effects to make the wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin go away.
Trent Claus, visual effects supervisor on Prometheus (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), took on his most formidable challenge yet when he accepted the assignment of turning old Pee-wee into young Pee-wee. Claus said, "The most obvious thing is that the skin along the jaw in most people tends to get lower and lower and sag a little bit as you get older. Particularly around the throat and the Adam's Apple area, you'll get a build-up of extra skin down there. One thing we'll have to do to de-age someone is restore that elasticity and try to not only to remove the excess skin, but pull it back up to where it once was."
This was an extension of post-production beauty work. Josh Dickey of Mashable wrote, "A recent comedy hit featured a top actress in her 40s who required beauty work on every single shot she was in — some 600 total. With artists working around the clock, seven days a week, the beauty work alone took close to three months."
CGI experts who specialize in retouching actors have adapted plastic surgeon techniques to their work. Logan Hill of Vulture wrote, "Today, Lola [Visual Effects] might begin with a 'digital dermabrasion, removing any age spots or imperfects,' then reduce 'eye bags,' use a 'mesh warp' technique to tighten sagging skin or bulging flab, and perform a 'digital face-lift' to trim jowls and areas like earlobes and noses that grow larger with age, while meticulously relighting every pixel." They can even stretch a paunchy old man to make him look thinner.
The man-child comedian did not have this advantage in the old days. Harry Langdon was already forty years old by the time that he introduced his childlike "Little Elf" character to film audiences. The comedian knew that his character would not be accepted by audiences if he was, by every obvious physical trait, a middle-aged man. So, to give himself a more youthful appearance, Langdon relied upon white pancake makeup to conceal the age lines in his face. He further enhanced his looks with thick eyeliner and lip makeup. The heavy makeup did not suit everyone's taste. The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt admitted in a 1971 article on Langdon that she found the comedian's makeup weird. She wrote, "The makeup. . . gives [Langdon] the likeness of a child who has been mooning for hours in front of a looking glass with its mother's lipstick and mascara." But many others accepted Langdon as an eternal child.
Unfortunately, white pancake makeup could no longer mask Langdon's age once his jowls sagged and deep wrinkles lined his face. In 1937, Langdon decided that it was time to change his character's appearance. He got rid of his old costume and his old makeup. He even grew a moustache to assert a new adult look.
Stan Laurel believed that wrinkles could diminish the effectiveness of the Stan and Ollie characters. Laurel insisted for years that he and partner Oliver Hardy wear white pancake makeup to bring an ageless look to their on-screen characters. Wikipedia reported:
Part of Laurel and Hardy's onscreen images called for their faces to be filmed flat, without any shadows or dramatic lighting. To invoke a traditional clown-like appearance, both comedians wore a light pancake makeup on their faces, and Roach's cameramen, such as Art Lloyd and Francis Corby, were instructed to light and film a scene so that facial lines and wrinkles would be "washed out."I thought at times that Stan and Ollie looked almost angelic in their white-face makeup.
The older they got, the heavier the makeup was applied. It got to be too heavy for film critic John V. Brennan when it came to Saps at Sea (1940). Brennan wrote, "The heavy makeup Laurel and Hardy employed in this film is sometimes a distraction. Used to cover up wrinkle lines, the makeup only highlights the sad fact that our heroes were not the smooth-faced spirited youths they once were."
|Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)|
When Laurel and Hardy joined Twentieth Century Fox in 1941, they were told by studio executives that they could no longer wear their white pancake makeup. As a result, the comedians came across as a couple of humdrum old men in their first Fox film, Great Guns (1941).
|Laurel and Hardy in Great Guns (1941)|
Mike McGee, the co-founder and creative director of Framestore, said that, at present, young actors are having their faces and bodies scanned to "cryogenically preserve the digital image of their youth." This digital information could be used in 20 or 30 years to make the actor look younger or it could be sold or leased after the actor retires.
|Computer wizardry made Michael Douglas look younger in in Ant-Man (2015).|
I have long imagined that, one day, a computer would be able to scan the data on a DVD to capture an actor's facial features, voice, and movements. Allison Willmore of Buzzfeed foresees a day when we will see "a digitally-resurrected Humphrey Bogart. . . appear alongside Justin Bieber in a buddy-cop comedy."
Some are less optimistic than Willmore about the possibility of a Bogart and Bieber teaming. James Rocchi of the BBC wrote, "It's just one step toward the day, some Hollywood futurists predict, when a deceased movie star can be brought back to life on screen by digital effects. . . Imagine a new movie 'starring' Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant. And yet creating a digital copy of an actor to carry an entire performance remains an elusive goal, joining flying cars and food pills as 'inevitable' future developments that always seem somehow out of reach."
Andrew Whitehurst, visual effects supervisor on Ex Machina (2015), believes that the idea of digitally resurrecting a dead actor is "a fantasy world." He said, "[I]t's not a question of 'Oh, the computers aren't fast enough'; it's the psychological element of the [CGI character] that you need to be able to understand, how humans work physically but also psychologically in order to create this performance – and I do not see it as being something that is even on the horizon." He added, "We've done face-replacement for a lot of films, and you can get away with a lot in action scenes. But as soon as you have even a little bit of dialogue, it is colossally hard to do. It's the subtlety of human performance and human motion that is the thing that is very, very, very difficult to try and reproduce. There's not even a question of the amount – or the feeding in – of the data. Creating a digital human, it's not like trying to simulate an ocean, where the more data you chuck at it, the more complicated you make the simulation. It gets as good as it gets. . ."
No digital effects expert would ever claim that their job is easy. McGee worked four months to recreate Audrey Hepburn digitally for a Galaxy Chocolate commercial. He said, "We found that we could create a realistic still image of Hepburn quite quickly but as soon as she has to move, turn her head or open her mouth, that's when things can start to look uncanny, when things don't look 100% real. The human eye can spot it. . . It's all about getting the moisture in the eyes to look right, getting the eyelids to flutter correctly when someone blinks, the corner of someone's lips to turn up a little just before they smile, because it's those subtle signal and movements that make a great performance by any actor. And to ask an animator to copy that onto a computer model and capture a human performance is really challenging."
Difficult or not, though, McGee agrees with Willmore that we will eventually be able to digitally repurpose any and all of Hollywood's stars. He said, "As the technology develops, I see no reason that in the future we wouldn't see a CG performance by a dead actor up for a Bafta or an Oscar."
I don't see this as a morbid or sacrilegious enterprise. My fantasy is to see every great iconic comedian get rebooted for an extravaganza like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
You can read more about the comic man-child in my new book.
Other Examples of CG De-aging
|Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)|
|Jeff Bridges in TRON Legacy (2010)|
|William and Edna Frawley in Ventriloquist (1927)|
"Mostly Lost" is an annual workshop in which a sizable group, including writers, scholars, archivists, filmmakers, film buffs and students, gather together at the Library of Congress to identify archive films missing their main titles. The workshop often turns up rare films that have significant historical or entertainment value (sometimes both). The dependable Undercrank Productions has now put out a collection of these films called Found at "Mostly Lost."
Trav S. D. provided an excellent rundown of the films. I don't see that I have too much more to say, but a talky fellow such as myself should be able to make a fair effort.
|Hank Mann in The Nickel Snatcher (1920)|
It is true that The Nickel Snatcher (1920) has offensive (but funny) gags having to do with a fat woman boarding a street car. The Kansas State Board of Review had this scene eliminated because Hank Mann and Vernon Dent get behind the woman to give her a shove, which ends up with them putting their grabby hands on the woman's chunky buttocks. The board, which referenced the film under the title The Nickel Chaser, issued their demand of the scene's elimination with the following comment: "ELIM ALL OF SCENE OF MEN PUTTING HANDS ON FAT WOMAN AS THEY ASSIST HER ON CAR, AND USING DONKEY TO PUSH FAT [WOMAN]." The board failed to mention that the donkey ends up kicking the woman squarely in her hindquarters.
Jerry's Perfect Day (1916) is an example of early queer cinema. Trav perfectly describes the film's opening scene: "[George Ovey] sidles up to another tramp on a bench, falls asleep and dreams he is with his little wife. When he wakes up, he is petting and kissing the other tramp."
Later, a group of brawny police officers abandon their wives to join together in a skinny-dipping frolic.
Most of all, though, one of Ovey's tramp friends acts overtly gay.
Fifteen Minutes (1921) is a good silent film comedy primer. It derives gags from a bear, a mud puddle, a chase, a car driving into a lake, and hot-in-pursuit police officers. Let me not forget a dog pulling Snub Pollard through the street on a skateboard.
I didn't know that skateboards existed in 1921. I did a Google search on the history of the skateboard. Skateboards were not being manufactured commercially until the 1940s, but it is believed that children were producing crude homemade skateboards as far back as the 1920s. This is a 1920s style skateboard.
The best that the DVD set has to offer is two vaudeville acts staged for film cameras. The first film is Ventriloquist (1927), which preserved for posterity the vaudeville act of William and Edna Frawley. Mr. Frawley (the future "Fred Mertz") is hawking patent medicines to passersby. To prove the potency of his product, he persuades a woman to swallow one of his pills. The pill instantly causes the woman's body to go limp and gives her a serious case of rictus. To draw customers, Mr. Frawley lifts the drugged woman onto his knee and uses her as a ventriloquist dummy. Mrs. Frawley's impersonation of a ventriloquist dummy is certainly entertaining. My overall grade for the film: creepy (but funny).
The second film is The Joyride (1928), which features the long forgotten comedy team of George LeMaire and Joe Phillips. I want to talk a bit about these men.
LeMaire started out as the straight man in a blackface duo, Conroy and LeMaire. The act was featured in two Broadway revues, "The Passing Show of 1913" and "Fads and Fancies." Their most popular routine was a doctor's sketch called "The Doctor Shop." Conroy and LeMaire dissolved their partnership in 1919, at which time LeMaire took his doctor's sketch to "The Ziegfeld Follies." Conroy's role in the act was now taken by Ziegfeld perennial Eddie Cantor. LeMaire remained in great demand as a straight man. His reputation was assured by his continued appearances in Broadway shows, including "George White's Scandals" and "The Broadway Brevities."
Joe Phillips made a name for himself working from 1911 to 1914 in a Butler, Lowrie & Jacobs burlesque show called "The Beauty Parade." His straight man was a Jewish comedian named Harry Fields. I think that I can best tell Phillips' story with excerpts from his newspaper reviews.
Variety (October, 1912)
Joe Phillips plays a patsy, doing his best work in a couple of numbers with Lilla Brennan.Variety (November, 1912)
Joe Phillips as a "fresh guy" is a handy helper for Harry Fields, and the boy handles his material to good effect. He also helps work up a couple of numbers in good shape.The New York Clipper (September, 1913)
Two of the big song hits with "The Beauty Parade" at the Columbia last week were "When It's Apple Blossom Time In Normandy," sung by the Countess Rossi, and ''You Made Me Love You," sang by Lilla Brennan and Joe Phillips as a response duet, appropriately worded. This earned four or five encores at each show.The New York Clipper - Philadelphia's Empire Theatre (January, 1914)
"The Beauty Parade" was a winner to overflowing crowds last week. Harry Fields and Joe Phillips furnished plenty of amusement, while Lilla Brennan and Marie Flynn were the leaders of the female contingent.Variety (March, 1914)
Joe Phillips, for three years with Butler, Lowrie & Jacobs attractions and who quit on the road a week ago, is in New York and may also line up with [Progressive Wheel's] Sim Williams for next season burlesque.Williams put Phillips in his latest show, "The Girls from Joyland." The reviews were good.
Variety (November, 1914)
Joe Phillips is a clean worker, wears his clothes like a regular juvenile and does not exaggerate the French character in the first part. His number with Miss Sweet, "Please Do My Family a Favor," was one of the song hits of the last half.The New York Clipper (November, 1914)
Joe Phillips, as the little Frenchman, looked and acted the part, and his work in the French song and in duets and solos was well liked.Phillips returned to "The Beauty Parade" within months.
The New York Clipper - Chicago's Columbia Theatre (January, 1915)
"The Beauty Parade" packed 'em [for] the Saturday matinee. A good show includes: Ruth Barbour, Lilla Brennan and Lillian Brooks, hard workers. Miss [Hildegarde] Stone's has a pleasing singing voice. Joe Phillips injects plenty comedy throughout, ably assisted by Ambark Ali [Arabian acrobat], Geo. F. Hayes, William Meehan and Mickey Curran.At the end of 1915, Phillips contracted with The Strause and Franklyn Amusement Company for a featured role opposite Laura Houston in "Girls from the Follies." The star of the show was a popular Jewish comedian, Harry Steppe.
Phillips had done well with female partners, especially Lilla Brennan and Laura Houston. He teamed up with yet another female partner, Margaret Van Buren, in his next show, "Roseland." Usually, his duets with the ladies got better notices than his comedy numbers. This trend was to continue through much of his career.
In 1917, Phillips worked in a big-budget revue called "Little Miss Flirt," which was staged at The Harlem Opera House. The critic with The New York Clipper did not have much good to say about the show. He wrote, "It appears as if considerable money was spent in putting this act together, but the turn itself is hardly strong enough to get very far." But he did, as the following quote shows, single out Phillips and his new lady partner for praise.
The New York Clipper (May, 1917)
Joe Phillips and Marguerite De Von, who are featured in the tabloid, have no chance to show their talents except in the "daddy" song, which they sing well.After the failure of "Little Miss Flirt," Phillips tried out a two-act with Anita Osgood, then Evelyn MacVey. He eventually decided to strike out in a new direction.
Variety (March, 1920)
Jimmie Gildea and Joe Phillips were formally featured in different girl acts and were induced by Pantages [Theatre] to team up. They scored the show's hit. They are both clever comedians of contrasting types and have framed a dandy comedy routine full of good talking bits and business. The ventriloquist finish stopped the show.Variety (April, 1921)
[Eddie] Lambert steps upstage to make an announcement. Male partner interrupts, bawling him out for trying to make a single out of a two-act. The latter is Joe Phillips, from burlesque. Lambert introduces him in a comedy speech. Next a duet of burlesque opera, Phillips pulling laughs with a thin exaggerated falsetto voice. A burlesque ventriloquist bit similar to Felix Adler's, with Phillips as the dummy seated upon Lambert's knee, for some crossfire and a song hit. A good standard small time two-man comedy act.It was at this point that Phillips united with LeMaire.
Variety (April, 1922)
George Le Maire in "At the Dentist" followed and was another comedy riot. Le Maire is assisted by Joe Phillips from burlesque, who proves a happy selection. Two good-looking girls figure briefly.Variety (April, 1922)
Patricia Deacon, a Minneapolis society girl, will make her stage debut at the Palace, New York, next week, appearing in the George LeMaire and Joe Phillips act. The latter, who is out of burlesque, has joined with LeMaire. They will offer a combination of the osteopath and dentist turns formerly played by Conroy and LeMaire.Variety (April, 1922)
Joe Phillips (of burlesque) and two pretty girls. In a condensed version of the former Conroy and LeMaire "Doctor Shop" and another C & L sketch.Variety - 81st Street Theatre (August, 1922)
Le Maire, in white face, is an osteopath and dentist. A special set of his office is shown. Betty Dudley, a pretty brunette is a manicurist. Phillips, an anemic-looking comic who does a semi-"nance," calls for treatment and subjects himself to LeMaire roughhouse curative methods, which include the extraction of a tooth, a funny bit of business in a dental chair, and an awful grueling [time] on an osteopath's table. Phillips takes plenty of punishment during the action, all of it good for big laughs. LeMaire in his usual unctuous straight.
At the finish Phillips decides he will become an osteopath to get even for the slugging received. LeMaire tells him he can have the first patient who appears. A swell-looking filly walks in, is grabbed and thrown on the table by the new doc. LeMaire rescues her and throws his former patient out of a window.
It's hoke, but the kind they will relish. Le Maire is a past master at this type of comedy, and has surrounded himself with capable people.
In the vaudeville George LeMaire and Joe Phillips, doubling the dentist and osteopath scenes with their slapstick, made the house giggle heartily. Most of the stuff is done as LeMaire did it with Eddie Cantor in "The Follies" but that doesn't take away from Mr. Phillips, who gives a very comical performance of his own. The hoke makes it sure fire for low comedy.Variety (October, 1922)
LeMaire's "At the Dentist" is the vehicle which Eddie Cantor used in a revue and which now has Joe Phillips as the patient. Phillips follows Cantor very closely and makes the offering laughable vaudeville fun.Variety (October, 1922)
The novelty of the bill comes from the double appearance of George LeMaire. In third position, reunited with his old partner, Frank Conroy, in "The Sharpshooters" and again in closing position in "At the Dentist,'' with Joe Phillips playing the patient.Variety (October, 1922)
George LeMaire assisted by Joe Phillips opened the second half with "At the Dentist's" and the osteopath bit from one of the past shows.Variety (January, 1923)
George LeMaire [performs] in the comedy smash "The Dentist," but holding the idea and most of the material of the osteopath from the "Follies" of several seasons back. It's a whale of a low comedy turn, calculated for any grade of audience. It would be a tough bird that wouldn't get a laugh out of LeMaire manhandling little Joe Phillips. There is genuine, robust humor in the whole 17 minutes, and the right kind of laughter goes with it, the kind that starts at the diaphragm and comes in explosions.After two years of great success, LeMaire and Phillips split up sometime in early 1924. LeMaire went on to team up with a leading comedian of the day, Billy B. Van. The two men started out playing vaudeville dates and then worked together in two revues: "The Dream Girl" (1924) and "Gay Paree" (1925).
Joe Phillips came on for a moment to do a bit with Eddie Nelson, the blackface comedian, a little man with a big voice and a way of getting rags, "blues" and "mammy" songs over that has a touch of Al Jolson himself, on whom doubtless Nelson has modeled his style.
LeMaire and Phillips rejoined in 1926. The audiences responded well to the familiar pair. Variety noted, "[LeMaire and Phillips'] osteopathic hokum is well known." Unfortunately, the reunion lasted less than a year. Phillips did solo work for awhile.
Variety (April, 1928)
There may be comedy mopups at this house but it's doubtful if anything will run very far away over that which Joe registered. A rough comic but the kind of hoke the pop neighborhoods eat up.In 1929, LeMaire was hired by Pathe to write, direct and star in a series of comedy shorts. At first, he hired Louis Simon to be his comic foil. The two men were featured together in five shorts, including film adaptations of LeMaire's osteopath sketch (filmed as Go Easy, Doctor) and his dentist sketch (filmed as At the Dentist's). But eventually LeMaire reunited with his old partner Joe Phillips for two shorts: Dancing Around and Joyride.
LeMaire died from a heart attack on January 20, 1930. The show went on for Phillips.
Exhibitors Herald World (July 19, 1930)
Tom Patricola will be seen in the first of the new Ideal comedy series, featured with his vaudeville partner, Joe Phillips. This talking comedy went into production at Educational studios a few days ago, under the direction of William Goodrich [Roscoe Arbuckle].Exhibitors Herald World (September 20, 1930)
Sitting Pretty is a comedy which uses for its theme the latest species of individual to come to the attention of the world, the flagpole sitter. Two comedians of Broadway revues, Harry Short and Joe Phillips, are featured with Ruth Donnelly and Cesar Romero. Alf Goulding, the directorial Coast importation, who is working very nicely into the Brooklyn scheme of things, is holding the strings, guided by the script of A. D. Otvos.The Film Daily (September 28, 1930)
[Sitting Pretty is a] mild comedy. Even Joe Phillips, who ordinarily has no trouble at all getting the laughs, is unable to overcome the handicaps of the weak material given him in this comedy dealing with flag-pole sitting.The Film Daily (October 12, 1930)
Joe Phillips, diminutive Hollywood comedian, now in New York, is featured in "Lodge Night," a Vitaphone Varieties comedy written by A. D. Otvos.Variety (November, 1933)
Joe Phillips was the first to pick up the laughs, and he owed plenty to Aileen Cook, his foil. Stooges nicely for Phillips and then brings the turn new life when she gathers up her skirts and starts to put over some smooth legmania. Phillips stuff is not new, but so long as he spanks or threatens to spank his partner about every so often, he builds the laughs. Nice style of working, and it would be interesting to see what he would really do with good material.Variety (December, 1935)
Joe Phillips, next-to-closes with his comic chores. Madeline Killeen and Margie Johnson foil with him to goodly results. Gagging is a bit familiar by now, but still punchy.Variety - New York's State Theatre (June, 1943)
Marion-Hall combo was a last-minute booking to substitute for the team of Joe Phillips and Marion Colby who have a new act but weren't quite ready to open. They will come in two or three weeks hence instead.Variety – New York's State Theatre (June, 1946)
Joe Phillips, the vet vauder now working with tall, statuesque Patricia Flynn, works a patter turn with antiquated material and while there are occasional laughs, amusement returns are small.In October, 1948, Variety brought attention to Phillips appearing with Milton Berle and Maxie Rosenbloom in a "socko comedy bit" on "The Texaco Star Theatre." At the time, Phillips was also appearing in a show called "For Love or Money" in Pittsburgh.
Variety (April, 1949)
"Meet My Sister," half-hour musicomedy starring the Keane Sisters and Joe Phillips, set for Procter & Gamble's "Fireside Theatre" next Tuesday night. Felix Jackson writes, produces and directs the stanza.Phillips had more partners through the years than his notices ever managed to cover. Other partners include Thelma Temple and Billy Lang.
I cannot say what became of Phillips after "Meet My Sister." It surprised me that I couldn't find an obituary for the man in either Variety or Billboard. But I know that, after 38 years of clowning, the performer was due for a rest. For now, we at least know that the funny little fellow on the new DVD release was once a familiar face on burlesque and vaudeville stages.
I give the new DVD five enthusiastic donkey kicks.
This article is a first for me. I bring you, as my musings for today, an expansion of a comment that I made on Facebook. Who knows where this will lead? Yes, I can see it now. The bestselling comment on Facebook is soon to be a major motion picture.
It is difficult to fully unpack one's thoughts into the confines of a Facebook comment box while doing one's best to fend off attacks from an assortment of highly excitable detractors. Facebook has turned social discussion into the roller derby. When words are dispensed with the same force as Jacknife Jenny's elbow thrust, the discussion becomes more about ducking, dodging and shielding your nose than it is about making a thoughtful statement.
|Always protect your nose. It is a sensitive instrument.|
The Facebook thread had to do with a new "DuVernay test" proposed by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. Dargis named the test after Selma director Ava DuVernay. The test, which is designed to assess a film for racial diversity, poses the following question: Do the film's African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories? It is a companion to the Bechdel test, according to which a film is feminist-friendly if it has at least two women in it, the women talk to each other, and the women talk about something other than a man.
I was one of a few men who expressed opposition to the new test. It is wrong to force these tests upon filmmaking and film criticism. I know that, by saying this on Facebook, I risked Penelope Pistoff getting me a headlock and Foxy Balboa repeatedly punching me in the abdomen. And so it was. The person who was the most irritated was Ava DuVernay, who happened to have read the thread. DuVernay accused us of opposing diversity and only wanting to see films about white men. It seemed important to stand by my statements but even more important to clarify that I was not a narrow-minded bigot or a wicked supremacist. I intend to clarify that point further today.
I do not advocate that films be only about white men. I advocate that films be only about real people. I am dismissive of misguided tests that are harmful to the appreciation of films and reduce women and minorities to political statements rather than real characters.
Good filmmaking is honest filmmaking. The artist must be truthful to himself and find his own personal meaning in his work. It is when a story speaks so strongly to a filmmaker that he wants to thoroughly explore it and share it with others. He must be allowed to craft his story freely and intuitively. Politically correct contrivances corrupt that the storytelling transaction. Diversity quotas and affirmative action edicts are contrivances that set aside art and entertainment for overbearing principles that provide neither amusement nor enlightenment. A film loses its value when it is reduced to a dreary, dubious and annoying political statement. Contrivance is, to be blunt, death to filmmaking.
Nowadays, most film critics are desperate to be seen as political activists. Their brand of political activism has come to dominate film criticism, which is as it turns out is not film criticism at all. You can be a political activist or you can be a film critic. You cannot be both. Political activism is a possessive mistress. It demands its devotees' full love and attention and it forbids its eager devotees from experiencing a film openly, honestly, or fully.
A film is best perceived when a viewer surrenders himself to the world that the filmmaker has created. It doesn't work as well when the viewer tries to force the cinematic world to surrender to their own personal perceptions. In the end, you don't have to agree with what the filmmaker has to say, but you do have to allow him to have his own voice. I won't argue much if you want to censor gratuitous sex and mean-spirited violence, but I ask you to please not censor true ideas.
A person cannot possibly appreciate the story and characters that a filmmaker is presenting if their head is filled with unrelated political preoccupations. I imagine applying these tests while watching a film. "Hmm," I say to myself, "that actor is black. Does his character have a fully realized life and is he doing nothing more in the story than helping a white protagonist achieve his objectives? Oh, wait, that other character is a woman. Let me see if she talks to another woman. Are they talking about something other than a man?" It is an odd way to watch a film. For the record, supporting characters do not generally turn up in the proceedings to tell their own stories. So, yes, you can expect the white protagonist's black friend to inevitably be introduced into the story to help the protagonist to achieve his objectives. The protagonist's girlfriend will be generally defined in context to her relationship to the protagonist. It does not serve the story to have a scene in which the girlfriend talks about issues that have no bearing on the protagonist. If the girlfriend is fascinating in her own way and she is struggling dramatically to resolve interesting conflicts in her own life, she undoubtedly needs to have her own film. In that case, the boyfriend can play a subordinate role in whatever story unfolds.
A good actor brings a great deal of style, technique and emotional power to his performances. It is disrespectful to the actor to be overly conscious of his skin color and pass judgement on his role in a film based on his skin color. I prefer to judge an actor based on the content of his performance rather than his placement on a color chart.
Then, it is question of what I should think if the film fails to pass the tests. Does this mean that the film is racist and sexist and I should reject the film outright? Should I storm out of the theatre and demand a refund at the box office? Should I make sure to tell others that the film has no value? A person on Facebook said that The Martian was worthless because it was a film about everyone on Earth coming together to get a white man off Mars.
A person who is obsessed about these tests cannot possibly love or understand the art of motion pictures or appreciate the way that motion pictures convey the human experience.
It redefines film criticism in an adverse way to have film critics predominantly see films through the prism of feminism and racism. Applying diversity principles to stories and characters is a narrow way to study films.
Female directors get the worse treatment at the hands of the feminist-disguised-as-film-critic journalist because a female director is expected to toe the company line. Professional women in the public eye are yoked to the feminist dogma, which they must strain painfully to drag from one project to the next. The feminists who dominate film criticism will not allow women to think truthfully or independently. They demand that women contribute slavishly to their holy movement. It can be a terrible handicap if the woman hopes to direct a big-budget superhero film. Marvel Studios does not want to draw undue attention from angry feminists, which is a group that they could never satisfy.
Recently, female critics treated Nancy Meyers harshly for the choices that she made in directing The Intern. The film explored themes of friendship, family, old age and career. Bored with retirement, 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) takes a job as a senior intern at a fashion company. His wisdom, hard work and good nature make him a valuable asset to the company and help him to develop a close relationship with his boss, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).
To start, these critics were greatly offended by the fact that the film's title role went to DeNiro. They couldn't understand the reason that Meyers wouldn't give the role to a woman, maybe Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton. New York Magazine's Ann Friedman made her grievances clear in an article titled "I Wish the Intern on The Intern Had Been a Woman." She wrote, "What I really want are stories about how being an older woman can be great, and I've come to rely on Nancy Meyers to provide them."
Also, these critics believed that it diminishes a young woman to take paternalistic advice from an old man. Sarah Seltzer of Flavorwire wrote, "This is The Intern, a movie about raw yet fragile female power held up by kind, competent — but very masculine — male scaffolding. It presents a bizarre and almost incoherent set of gender politics in appealing packaging. The film yearns for the good old days of briefcase-toting, tie-wearing company men who shaved every day, while ignoring the fact that most of those guys operated in a deeply sexist environment and wouldn't be as graciously accepting of a young female boss as Ben is."
Matilda Dixon-Smith announced a feminist agenda by titling her review "The Intern May Tick Boxes On The Feminist Film Checklist, But That Sure Doesn't Make It A Feminist Film." She wrote, "Of course, the real mark of a feminist film is not just who is on the screen and who put them there, but also what it all means. We need to look deeper to understand why those female characters are there, who they are meant to be representing, and what, overall, the film has to say about women and gender equality." She did not like the film. She admitted to groaning audibly during the screening, which irritated the people who sat near her. I am fortunate that Ms. Dixon-Smith lives in Melbourne, Australia, which means that it is highly unlikely that I will ever have to sit in a theatre next to her.
It makes it even worse that DeNiro is an old white man. The pale skin color of DeNiro and Hathaway was significant issue to these critics. Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly condemned the film because it could "hardly find a person of color in New York City." It was funny to me that the review was accompanied by the following image from the film.
As you can clearly see, two black people are in attendance at Hathaway's management meeting. I would not have noticed the skin color of the actors if Greenblatt had not brought up the subject. Other critics made similar observations. Seltzer wrote, "Unfortunately, The Intern follows Meyers' pattern of being so white it makes Nora Ephron's oeuvre look positively ethnic. They didn't even bother casting a person of color to play one of the assemblage of dorky guys who form Ben's posse at the startup." Melissa Silverstein of Indiewire wrote, "[Meyers'] movies are perfectly pretty. . . and oh so white. That whiteness was bothersome a decade ago; it's troubling now. The Intern is set in Park Slope, Brooklyn. . ., and that part of the Slope is pretty white (I speak as a person who passes that area every day), but she made it whiter and very beautifully manicured. It's like she stripped out any diversity in the neighborhood."
We must assume if we are to believe Silverstein, Greenblatt and Seltzer that Meyers is a rabid racist who dreams of living in a white world. Greenblatt wrote, "A Nancy Meyers production isn't just a movie, it's a cream-toned, cashmere-swaddled universe unto itself. . . [I]t's not actually New York we're seeing at all. It's Nancy's Narnia, and as much a fantasy as she wants it to be." No one made fun of Todd Haynes for turning New York City into his own Narnia in Carol.
Of course, it's good that the role of the helpful intern wasn't given to an old black actor like Morgan Freeman because then the critics would have accused Meyers of creating yet another "Magic Negro" character, which we are led to believe is a terribly racist thing to do.
As I recall, the film's shots of Park Slope are fleeting. All that I remember seeing was a white old lady walking a dog past Hathaway's brownstone. It takes a person with an obsessive compulsive disorder to feel compelled to count black extras in a brief street scene. I selected a scene from the film at random. I feel silly doing this, but let us see if we can pick out black people.
Okay, ready, set, go! Spot the blacks!
I counted four black people. Did any of you do better than me? This game, as stupid as it is, is being played by many film critics today.
Seltzer scrutinized the film for feminist issues, race issues and economic issues. Seltzer wrote, "Nor does The Intern, which is a love letter to Brownstone Brooklyn, even touch on the gentrification that is driving out many lifelong residents of the borough — or the controversy over unpaid internships making it impossible for young people to live. Sure, one younger intern can't find an apartment, so Ben puts him up. Not only has he solved patriarchy, he's solved the economy too."
That was not the film that Meyers set out to make. The Intern was not meant to be The Big Short. Seltzer was so busy being politically correct that she missed most of what the filmmaker had to say and could not possibly appreciate the entertainment value that the film had to offer. If you need proof of the film's entertainment value, you need to only look at the film's box office receipts. The film, which had a production budget of $35 million, had a worldwide gross of $195 million. Likely due to the universal father-and-daughter dynamics between DeNiro and Hathaway, the film was profitable in a wide range of countries. Nothing proves a film's significance and entertainment value better than massive profits.
These critics also complained that the women in the film were not supportive to one another. It is an odd issue to raise when you are a female film critic who is being unduly critical of a female filmmaker. Ladies, take your own advice.
Oh, wait, I saw another black person in this still from the film.
I probably watch as much British television as I watch American television. I watch the sketch comedy shows, the sitcoms, the comedy panel shows, the police dramas, the interview shows, the sci-fi shows, the travel shows, and the documentary shows. Now that I think of it, I probably watch more British shows than American shows. I love British television. Well, let me add an asterisk to that last sentence.
* Except for Scott & Bailey
I recently came across the Manchester-based crime drama Scott and Bailey. I found myself so irritated by the show that I could not bear to watch it for more than 25 minutes. This is exactly the strained and bitter type of entertainment that you can expect to be produced by Bechdel test-loving feminists.
The idea for the series came about as actors Suranne Jones and Sally Lindsay were sipping wine at a pub. Jones explained, "We were talking about how it’d be great to have a female-led programme that wasn’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to… all that kind of stuff." They started to talk about Cagney and Lacey and thought it would be great to star in a series about two woman who were homicide detectives. Television producer Nicola Shindler liked the female detectives idea and had the series developed by writers Sally Wainwright and Diane Taylor.
Scott and Bailey's production has been dominated by women for its entire five-year run. This could have been an opportunity to provide female perspective on career, family and crime. But, for the last five years, the series' all-women creative team has worked hard to mostly produce a relentless stream of male-bashing.
The attacks on men have not gone unnoticed by the critics. This is a passage that I found on the series' Wikipedia page.
One of the more persistent criticisms of the show. . . has been its indifferent or decidedly negative depiction of male characters. Tim Oglethorpe, reviewing the first series in the Daily Mail, wrote that "the men often appear to be feckless, devious or dangerous". . . Dianne Butler, who reviewed the programme upon its airing in Australia, made a similar point, questioning the relevance of the show's male characters: "there are some men in this but they're fairly incidental." The Guardian's John Crace expressed his belief that most of the programme's male characters are deficient in some way, writing: "surely it must be possible to make a show with women lead characters without having to make every male a complete dork? From Janet's useless husband and Rachel's idiot brother who can't boil an egg without burning down the kitchen."This was not the first time that Crace had written about the portrayal of men in the series. When the series first debuted, he remarked, "At home, at work, they’re either evil sexist pigs and homophobes, or dull brainless snoring twits. Couldn’t there be just one reasonable male character?"
Wainwright resented Crace's comments. She said, "I don’t think the men on our show are weak. I think the point is that we’re not concentrating on the men; we’re concentrating on the women."
The problem isn't that Scott and Bailey doesn't concentrate on men. The problem is the series concentrates on men in a negative way. David Brown of Radio Times wrote:
If you’re a man on Scott & Bailey, there are three options open to you: idiot, stalker or killer. Don’t believe me? Well, in the manner of DCI Murray, let’s have a case conference and examine the evidence: There’s Pete, the constable caught with his kecks around his ankles in a pub car park. Then we have Nick the barrister, former boyfriend of Rachel who tried to have her killed. Creepy Andy who ruined Janet’s marriage. Rachel’s brother Dom who ended up in jail for killing Nick the barrister. And don’t get me started on the bloke with the graveyard under his floorboards. The whole thing’s a not-so-merry-go-round of fecklessness and murder.Keep in mind that I only watch 25 minutes of the show. How much male-bashing could I have seen in 25 minutes? A lot.
Pure sexism, you may well cry. Especially when we have Scott and Bailey themselves being portrayed in a consistently sympathetic light while all around them swirls this morass of corrupt men.
First let me say that it is only the white men who receive the scorn of these women. The series is very friendly to people of color regardless of gender. Black men and black women are featured prominently, frequently and respectfully in the series.
The murders in Manchester are entirely solved by dedicated, grim-faced women. The few white men who are around sit at the sidelines acting like contemptible fools. Tom Sutcliffe of Independent wrote, "Scott & Bailey, it is becoming increasingly clear, actually takes place in an alternative universe, broadly indistinguishable from the one its viewers occupy but given away by one significant inversion. In our universe senior police officers are mostly men. In theirs it looks as if promotion exclusively favours women. . . The glass ceiling appears to have been simply willed out of existence here. . ."
Jones, who drives most of the action, looks horribly grim in every frame of the show. This is not at all how the actress presents herself when she attends social functions or shows up to photo shoots. But this is an image that she is made to present in the series. Being a strong, independent woman is no laughing matter.
I read that the show toned down its sexism in response to the criticism that the show received in its first two seasons. So, this episode that I watched is a watered-down version of the series' brand of sexism. That is hard to believe.
Detective Inspector Rachel Bailey (Jones) has two white male subordinates: DC Pete Readyough (Tony Mooney) and DC Ian Mitchell (David Prosho). Readyough is shown to be slacking off and stuffing his face in the middle of a murder investigation. Bailey sticks her head out of her office to unbraid him. "Get some work done, Pete!" she barks. This is a man who has just gotten his nut sack torn off.
During a meeting, Bailey sees that someone drew the outline of Mickey Mouse's head on a map of the murder case sites. She assumes that this joke was the work of Readyough and Mitchell. She tosses the map at them like a teacher chucking chalk at naughty schoolboys. The detectives respond predictably with an outburst of childish giggling.
Mitchell loses his day-planner, which falls into the hands of a journalist and allows information from the police investigation to be leaked to the press. Bailey becomes so angry at Mitchell that she screams at him in public.
Wait, it goes on even longer.
She hasn't beaten up this poor guy enough.
The man, as this last screen capture makes clear, is left to feel useless.
I made a lot more screen captures of this scene. The best way to study the scene and understand the severity of Bailey's castigation of Mitchell may be to view the screen captures in a slide show format.
Bailey reassigns Mitchell in the investigation because, she says, she "can't stand to look at him." He is killed the next day while trying to apprehend a murder suspect. Men are, in this alternate universe, useless and disposable.
The Bechdel test is truly honored in this episode. You have many instances in the scant 25 minutes in which women speak to one another affectionately, intimately and respectfully. Never do they ever speak of a man. . . unless, of course, the man is a murderer.
The two female detectives both live in men-free homes. Detective Constable Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) lives with her daughter Taisie (Harriet Waters) and her elderly mother Dorothy (Judith Barker). In this scene, Dorothy admits to watching a lot of Internet porn, which is supposed to mean that she is sexually liberated and deserves our praise and admiration.
You have to know that these women are kick-ass. DC Anna Ram (Jing Lusi) easily overpowers a brawny male suspect even though she is only 5' 3" tall.
A "Fuck motherhood!" decree is delivered at the 16-minute mark.
In television, it is presented as the ultimate sign of female empowerment when a woman renounces motherhood. It just happened in an episode of Game of Thrones ("The Red Woman," April 24, 2016). Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) defiantly proclaims that she has no intention of ever bearing children.
Those people who hear her say this are appalled and they accuse Daenerys of being a witch, but the young woman doesn't react as if being called a witch bothers her.
Another female character in the episode, Melisandre, is an actual traditional witch (although they call her a "priestess"). It is clear that men fear and admire this spell-casting woman for her great power. Melisandre burns alive a child as a sacrifice to her fire god R'hilor ("The Dance of the Dragons," 2015). She burns a baby to death in the book series. The connection with female empowerment and child-murdering witches will be discussed in my next article. The point is that the witch has become a role model.
We have here, presented as entertainment, an angry, deranged feminist fantasy world. It is not too entertaining.
|Puritan Hubris Punished Tarantino-Style|
The Witch is a bit of nastiness that, despite spooky posters and a spooky trailer, could hardly be called a horror film. Tim Dirks of AMC's Filmsite defined a horror film as follows: "Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience."
I never felt fright or panic as I watched the film, I was never captivated or entertained, I did not at any point find my worst hidden fears being invoked, and I had no cathartic experience as the film plodded to its conclusion. The best horror films feature characters that you understand and care about. This film does not. The best horror films have a good story that the audience can follow through various twists and turns. This film has no real story.
The film is focused on a Puritan family living in New England during the 1630s. The family members include father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), and baby Samuel (unbilled). The family looks strangely fearful and unhappy even before the real trouble starts.
The film begins with the family being excommunicated from a Puritan plantation due, according to the community's leaders, the father's "prideful conceit." William accuses the settlement leaders of being "false Christians" for failing to adhere to the "pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God." The judges tell him that, for his dissident behavior, he must be "banished from [the] plantation's liberties." This excommunication is a key part of the story that sets into motion everything that goes wrong for the family. Shouldn't we know specifically how the father came into his intractable conflict with the community's leaders? The father's character arc doesn't work without this information. We can only assume that this is an issue of the father's pride, which will prove to be a detriment to his family throughout the story.
The scene, as it stands, makes me question William's reasonableness. He could be a fool or he could be a mad man for leaving the security of the settlement. But, just as any new community, the Puritan settlements inevitably experienced a rise in dissidents. In time, the dissents formed their own groups, including the Quakers and the Baptists. It remains difficult to judge William without knowing the exact laws that he has broken. Andrew Delbanco, editor of The Puritans in America, explained the design of Puritan society as envisioned by John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He wrote, "[Winthrop] turned. . . to communal values, to loving one another, to rejoicing and suffering together, to living as members of one body. But this beauty of community — that we could live and rejoice and suffer together as one body— also has its dark side: the requirement to conform, the surveillance, the excision of all that does not quite fit."
So, this family that does not quite fit accepts their banishment with hardened faith. Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative wrote, "The family sings hymns as their small cart rattles out into the unknown." The father's insistence to live in purity has now alienated the family from their fellow man and settled them into a remote cabin beside a dark and menacing forest. We know that trouble is bound to come as soon as the family plops down in the middle of nowhere. This is "cabin in the woods" stuff.
The director, Robert Eggers, has made it clear in interviews that he is not fond of the Puritans. The Puritans believed that we are sinners who must humble ourselves before a wrathful God. Caleb at one point repeats a tenet that his father taught him: "My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually." The film purports that this dark form of religion can draw darker forces into a man's life.
Without question, the Puritans were not a feel-good bunch. They believed in denying themselves pleasure because pleasure could easily distract a man from vital commitments. Puritan authorities once issued a ban against church members eating cake on Christmas. "[T]his day. . .," read the ban, "is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers. . ." They were concerned that Christians could forgot about Christ while "giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights." This, they said, was "contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth. . ." But I look at today's pleasure-obsessed society and I cannot say that the Puritans were entirely wrong.
The ethics of the Puritans emphasized the importance of hard work and self-discipline because this allowed them to achieve worldly prosperity, which was regarded as the best sign of divine favor. We have, in fact, inherited many of our best qualities as Americans from the Puritans. Delbanco wrote, "Puritanism as a basic attitude was remarkably durable and can hardly be overestimated as a formative element of early American life."
A high literacy rate existed in the Puritan community. Abram Van Engen, author of Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, wrote, "The Puritans were deeply committed to learning — a commitment so obvious and so interwoven into all they said and did that it is sometimes brutally shocking. . . to discover popular views that depict the Puritans as anti-intellectual fanatics."
The Puritan community's devotion to learning was shared equally by both sexes. Debra Kelly of Listverse wrote, "In a time when women were still largely uneducated, most Puritan women were not only literate but entrusted to run the majority of household, financial, and legal affairs. . . A literate, well-read mother was more likely to raise godly children, it was thought. It was necessary for her to be able to read to her children, to teach them scripture and give them the foundation that they would need to become good citizens."
Many books have been written about the Puritans' great contributions to this country. Just know that there was a lot more to these people than the film lets on.
The film's spare plot was described perfectly by Plugged In's Adam R. Holz. He wrote:
Thomasin's tending to [baby Samuel] one day on the edge of the forest, playing a friendly game of peekaboo. But the fourth or fifth time she uncovers her eyes, Samuel is … gone.We have seen the real witch, so we know Thomasin is innocent. We only wish that her parents would believe her. But that's it, that's the story. The babysitter loses the baby and the baby's parents accuse her of foul play. Then, a second child comes to harm, which makes everyone even crazier.
Thomasin insists that she knows nothing of how the boy disappeared. But as the family grieves the infant's absence, it's hard for them to not entertain the possibility that perhaps Thomasin herself is … a witch. Those suspicions only increase when Caleb soon vanishes, too, while he's with Thomasin in the woods they've been forbidden to set foot in.
The more Thomasin pleads her innocence, the more her increasingly unhinged parents doubt her earnestness. And then Caleb finally returns from the woods … and he's not quite the same.
The film is torture porn, which never needs a story. Hapless characters encounter a serial killer, who proceeds to torture and slaughter them one by one. But the film is particularly distasteful because most of the victims are small children. A version of Hostel with children is not a film that I care to see. Five minutes into the film, the film's baddie steals a smiling baby, eviscerates and crushes the baby, and smears her craggy body with the baby's fat and blood. Matt Patches of Grantland described the scene best: "[A] wrinkled hag pestle-and-mortars a baby into body lotion." Really, is this the height of art? Is this entertainment? What is this?
It has become the duty of the filmmaker to punish the foul Puritans. Eggers said that he found the "hubris that English settlers had" was "really disgusting and horrible and embarrassing." But William shows love for his family and he shows a deep spiritual conviction. He is hardly disgusting and horrible compared to his adversary, the witch. But Eggers prefers the witch, who as I understand it represents female empowerment.
Evil reigns supreme from nearly the opening tableau to the closing credits of the film. Josh Larsen of Think Christian described The Witch as "a low-budget horror picture in which Jesus is mentioned a lot, but Satan gets all the screen time." It is no wonder that the film has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Satanic Temple.
The family makes themselves vulnerable by forfeiting Christian virtues like grace and mercy. Larsen wrote, "The father. . . lets his obsession with sin, punishment and the influence of the devil define the family’s dynamics, so that when human frailty does crop up (when the mother grows jealous of the daughter’s youthfulness or when the father is too prideful to admit that their crop has failed), guilt, doubt and fear become a toxic brew."
The crop failure is an important part of the story. William has evidently overestimated his ability to grow food for the family (assuming the crop failure isn't also the witch's doing). But the real problem is that, while his family is starving, the man refuses to humble himself before the Puritan leaders and convince them to take back his family.
Even fans of The Witch do not agree it is a horror film. It has been said by fans that the film is more a psychological drama or a family drama. It makes perfect sense that Eggers says that a major influence of the film was Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972). Cries and Whispers was a family drama that addressed repressed feelings, family discord, a distant mother, religious faith, a haunting spirit, and ultimately death. Bergman even threw in the mutilation of sex organs, which Eggers must not have been able to fit into his script.
A family should be unified by love, trust and intimacy. The bonds between the four women in Cries and Whispers are, according to Jacob Hall of Slash Film, "tested and broken." Hall wrote, "The characters at the heart of The Witch desperately reach into their faith and pray to God to guide them, to heal them. The characters of Cries and Whispers don’t even have that much – if there is a higher power, he abandoned them long ago."
Detractors of The Witch generally found this non-horror horror film to be boring. Patches found that the film "deflate[s] a little bit in the middle section" and "becomes somewhat monotonous." Mallory Ortberg of The Toast questioned the entertainment value of "a really period-accurate movie about people saying 'thee' to each other and shucking rotted corn for like seven hours?" Ortberg did not believe that the film offered anything exciting except for the final scene's "blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bloodbath." The Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl complained that, at times, the film becomes a "study [of] white pines."
The most scathing review of the film that I could find was written by Scherstuhl, who stated:
We've admired the effort put into the realization of a 1630 New England, the thatched-roof production design and the scratchy woolen shifts, and the way most shots' stark boldness suggests seventeenth-century woodcuts. We've invested, perhaps, in the suffering of young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), unjustly accused — as all bonnet-wearing teens in movies must be — of witchcraft. We've maybe relished the occasional vision of mythic, pre-industrial terror: the hag fondling a baby, the goat whose teat spurts blood, the apple whose red has been made even more lurid with a coating of gore. And we've seen wholly unambiguous evidence that, in the reality of the film, there are witches in the woods, and that Satan doesn't have anything better to do than to dick around with settlers' livestock.The message of the film is not entirely clear. Ethan Sacks of the New York Daily News wrote, "Early on, it seems that The Witch is tapping a higher metaphor for coming of age. . . or religious intolerance. . . or man's uneasy balance with nature. . . or something."
The witch exploits the family's repressed emotions, their lack of grace and mercy, and the grief they feel over the loss of the baby. We humans can be exploited in so many ways. The grief is terrible. Grieving the loss of the baby makes it hard for the family to hold onto their faith. But their lack of grace is, as the film shows, even worse. Larsen wrote, "[I]n refusing to allow for grace, they become easy pickings for the witch."
The film has received the deepest analysis from Christian film critics. Let's start with Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative. Tusnet wrote:
The Witch is pervaded by the fear of God. There are occasional references to His mercy but only as something to beg for, not something to trust in. . . This is a movie about what it’s like to do your best to love and serve a God of wrath. It’s about the view from within that faith. The mother’s speech about the way her baby’s disappearance has brought her from blissful faith and "ravished" union with God to torturing doubt is one of the best, most nuanced expressions of religious anguish I’ve seen in cinema. And the scene in which a possibly-possessed child begins to pray and quote the Bible is flat-out shocking, totally unexpected and yet drawn from the wellsprings of Christian faith.I now return to Holz, who provided a comprehensive Christian perspective. Holz wrote:
William is absolutely devoted to leading his family in holiness and the ways of the Lord, which should be a good thing. But the fruit of William's rigorous focus on dogmatic piety isn't a lifting of burdens, which we're told should happen in Matthew 11:30, or a joyful celebration of living life to the fullest, as is referenced in John 10:10; rather it is deep fear and morbid meditations on hell, damnation and the forces of spiritual darkness. Katherine, especially, seems to fear the prospect of hell. And when Samuel disappears, we learn that he was never baptized—something that leads his mother to believe he's been utterly damned. Eventually, such worry forces her to slip perilously close to insanity. She tells her husband that she's lost the ability to sense God's presence and that she believes the whole family is cursed.The suffering that Eggers imposes on the family is grief. I share in the family's grief and I pity them. I am disgusted by the witch butchering the infant. But grief, pity and disgust are not the predominant reactions that I expect to get from a horror film.
Tension and doubt cause family members to turn on one another. Adam Chitwood of Collider wrote, "Someone must be to blame for their poor fortune, and if not God, it’s surely one of them." Holz stated, "While this devout family imagines evil in their midst that doesn't exist, real evil stalks and eventually claims them."
Unlike Katherine, William does not believe for a long time that it was a witch that took Samuel. He insists that it was a wolf that got the baby. Eggers clarified the reason that William refuses to believe that he has a witch problem until it's too late. It's not that he doesn't believe that witches exist. It is, again, his pride that gets in the way. He doesn't want to believe that his family is being bedeviled by a witch because only a man who lacks purity would be susceptible to the torments of a witch. Ineson said in an interview that William could not possibly imagine that a witch could have power over "the Greatest Puritan in the World."
In William's defense, the wiliness of Satan and his minions has to be taken into consideration. Delbanco wrote, "[W]hen [Satan] attacked, he gave the 'fatal stab unseen,' and his slyness -- his very essence -- was confirmed by the difficulty of recognizing him."
The mother already mistrusted her daughter because of her developing sexuality, but now she has suspicions that the young woman has stolen a silver cup that was passed down to her from her dear father. Holz wrote, "William doesn't tell his wife the truth for some time about trading [the] beloved heirloom for animal traps. His reticence furthers his wife's wrongheaded beliefs about Thomasin." It is difficult for him when he must finally confess the truth. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote, "William, his authority flaking and peeling away with every scene, admits out loud to being a thief."
Caleb is beginning to have sexual feelings. We know this because we have seen him glimpsing lustfully his sister's cleavage. So, the witch uses the boy's lust against him as he wanders through the woods. Holz wrote, "[The witch] is buxom and cleavage-baring, and she seduces and kisses him. Eventually, he returns home without his clothes. . . In a feverish haze, he exclaims, 'My balls, my stomach, sin, sin, sin'."
So, yes, this witch is a true feminist. She feels free to kill babies and she likes to have slutty sex. It fits into this anti-maternal, baby-killing scenario that, at a recent pro-abortion rally, feminists happily bit off the heads of baby cookies. It's real grim Hansel and Gretel stuff.
KC Ifeanyi of Fast Company wrote, "Caleb’s condition eerily plummets from a chaotic seizure to what one can assume to be a either a fit of delirium or a moment of religious ecstasy. Arms outstretched, eyes cast upwards, Caleb slowly sits up, reciting snippets of a prayer from John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of New England."
Here is what boy says in the film (assuming that I transcribed it correctly):
Cast the light of your countenance upon me, spread over me the lap of thy love, wash me in the ever flowing fountains of thy blood. Holy thing I am, my sweet Lord Jesus, my Lord, my love. Kiss me with the kisses of thy mouth. How lovely are thou! Thy embrace, my Lord, my love, my sole salvation. Take me to thy lap.This is actual prayer from Winthrop's diary:
O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embraces! My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation. O my God, my king, what am I but dust! A worm, a rebel, and thine enemy was I, wallowing in the blood and filth of my sins, when thou didst cast the light of Countenance upon me, when thou spread over me the lap of thy love, and saidest that I should live.Eggers said, "That 'kiss me with the kisses with his mouth' was very striking to me. With some more research, I realized it's from the Song of Solomon that Winthrop is appropriating. It's very common all through the Middle Ages and the early modern period for people to appropriate biblical language in their own way. But this kind of mystical, erotic relationship with God is something that was very interesting, to say the least. And I think that especially from a modern perspective, we really wonder is he saved or is he not saved? And that’s a question that the parents are asking themselves."
The Song of Solomon is an Old Testament passage about a bride and groom rejoicing in their newfound sexual intimacy. Could Caleb be referring to the newfound sexual intimacy that he experienced with the witchy child molester? He sounds sexually titillated as he speaks these words. At the height of his excitement, Caleb limply falls back onto his bed. He is no longer breathing.
Ifeanyi wrote, "Caleb’s death at the hands of witchcraft signals a dynamic shift in the film. At this point, some family members have consoled themselves into thinking the baby’s disappearance earlier on was caused by a wolf or some other animal snatching him up—but facing witchcraft dead-on is the final rift that sets in motion the last, and certainly bloodiest, scenes in the film."
William finally acknowledges his blame in this matter. He says, "It is my fault. And I confess it. Oh my God, I am foul. I am infected with the filth of pride. I am, I know it. Dispose of me how Thy wilt, yet redeem my children. . . I beg Thee, save my children. I beg Thee, my Christ, why hast Thou damned my family?" Is this a character arc? No, because he no sooner says this then he is gored to death by a possessed goat.
In the final minutes of the film, Katherine and Thomasin are the only members of the film that we know are still alive. The twins are missing, but they are likely dead. Katherine furiously attacks her daughter, who seems more than ever to be a witch. Her daughter grabs a knife and, with rage, stabs her mother to death.
|Goya's "Witches' Sabbath" (1789)|
Holz wrote, "Thomasin, the lone survivor, begins talking to Black Philip, the goat, asking if he is in fact the devil. And. . . it turns out that he is. The beast morphs into a man and coaches Thomasin through the process of surrendering her soul to him in a blood pact. She then wanders naked into the forest to find a coven of other (similarly unclothed) witches who are performing an ecstatic rite around a fire before they begin to levitate."
Thomasin has turned from love and kindness to unrepressed evil in less than a minute. It is with great joy that she now joins the witches' coven that tortured and murdered her family. If her father was depraved due to his pride, it hardly seems that she will find a better father in Satan, whose own fall came about due to his epic pride. Satan would have been pleased if the tormented William cursed God before he perished, but the man only asked God to take him and save his family. But what sympathy can we expect from Eggers? Thomasin's betrayal of her family and her religious faith is again presented by the filmmaker as an act of female empowerment.
It is astonishing that a film as dour and meticulous as this one could end in such a silly and hasty way. Ortberg wrote, "I know we are solidly against Puritans in These Modern Times, but they did not establish that her life before was so shitty [or] that her cool new witch life is going to be fun." Like it or not, this is how it ends. We go from Ingmar Bergman gloom to Steven Spielberg cheer.
|Goya’s "Witches in Flight" (1798)|
The message of the film is presumably to be found in this abrupt tonal shift. After she slaughters her mother, the young woman can finally shed her ponderous religious shackles and summon the power of her newfound demonic freedom to float in mid-air. The light from the fire casts a radiant glow on her. It is the same glow that we saw as Caleb lie possessed in bed. The fact that she moves so sharply from darkness to light can only suggest one thing - God is the darkness and Satan is the true light. Thomasin replaces the tight frown that we have seen for the entire film with a great open smile. This is, without question, a fun experience for her. The one other person that I saw happily soar into the air bathed in golden light was Peter Pan. The last that we see of Thomasin she is laughing delightedly.
Tasha Robinson of The Verge suggested that the fantastic ending could be taken as a metaphor. Other critics have assumed that none of the film's supernatural horror is to be taken literally. The truth, according to this theory, is that the entire overwrought bunch had only imagined the witch. Lane wrote, "Could we be observing not facts but the fanciful terrors of the devout?" My first reaction to the theory was, simply, "No way!" This interpretation of the film made no sense to me whatsoever. But, then, I thought more about this and I figured that Robinson and the others might have a point. There have been Biblical scholars that have suggested that Satan is not necessarily real. He could be the abstract quality of evil that exists inside each person. According to Delbanco, the Bible has at times presented Satan as a symbol of "our own deficient love."
What does Eggers say about this? Eggers said, "I know that's kind of a weird thing to say, but of course, in the period [of The Witch], the witches were real. Religious hysteria was also real. And in Salem, they realized they had made a grave mistake, but it wasn't because witches didn't exist. It was just that those particular women, and a few men, were not witches." But Eggers has been inconsistent when asked about this. He has offered encouragement to the "smarty-pants" who wants to go deeper intellectually in interpreting the film. He said, "If someone wants to go in and watch this and think it's about a real witch, that's the surface read. But if you want to go in for more, there's a lot more ways to look at it." We will delve deeper into this subject in my next article.
Eggers dressed up his cast in waistcoats, aprons, shifts, square-toed shoes, petticoats and lace bonnets. The director boasted that the clothing was "hand-stitched based on extant clothing." He had them speak in old English (often unintelligible). But, without the distractions of the historical motif, you would see that the film didn't have much of a story to hold your attention. Imagine the film in a modern setting without the chilly 17th Century atmosphere. All you would have is a family that moves next door to a homicidal neighbor. Mayhem ensues.
Tragedy can tear apart the best of families. The family has lost a child. They are starving due to the difficulty of farming uncultivated land. The fact that their farm has failed to produce food is a serious enough problem for the family. So, the family members turn on one another while struggling with fear and grief. Do they deserve to be horribly murdered for this? Eggers could do with a little of Christian mercy himself.
Scherstuhl believed that, whether he intended to or not, Eggers joined forces with the Puritans. He wrote, "The Witch purports, at times, to confront ignorance and hysteria, but in the end, for horror thrills, Eggers's film sides with the preachers and executioners. It literalizes the fevered terrors of our God-mad ancestors — and then brags that it's all steeped in research. It's like if, a couple of centuries from now, the latest holodeck true-crime horror flick is a West Memphis Three story that wraps with the boys high-fiving Lucifer."
Eggers spent four years working meticulously to bring this story to the screen. It was a passion project. He wouldn't have been so dedicated if he didn't believe he was delivering an important message. He was disturbed by the cruelty of the Salem Witch Trial, which were perpetuated by the Puritans, and, like Quentin Tarantino, he sought to rewrite history for a bit of righteous score-settling. The witches got to win this time. Lane said that, as William splits wood with his axe, he looks like he would make "a good executioner." Maybe, William would be willing to behead a few bad witches if the burning pyre got rained out. The goat's goring of William is equivalent to the assassination of Hilter in Inglourious Basterds (Eggers referred to the Salem Witches Trial as "the witch holocaust") and the ex-slave gunning down the plantation owner in Django Unchained.
But the Puritans were, according to Eggers, guilty of even more. Eggers has said in interviews that the Puritans had "a really weird relationship with nature." He spoke of the Puritans coming to America at a time when "there was a real problem in England. . . with deforestation." It troubled him that the Puritans planned to selfishly and greedily cultivate their new homeland, which included chopping down those white pines that look so magnificent in the film. In his view, this put the settlers into an intense conflict with "these huge and overwhelming prideful and evil forests." So, it was to obstruct an impending tree holocaust that the trees joined the witches in wiping out the Puritans.
This, I must say, is a decidedly anti-Christian notion. According to the Bible, God has given man dominion over the forests. Of course, man must act responsibly in his relationship to the Earth ("work it and watch over it," says Genesis). But a man is allowed to chop down a tree to build a cabin and he can if he wants chop down further trees to warm himself by a roaring fire.
The great thinkers produced by the Puritans' educational system were not ones to endorse the wanton destruction of forests. Their learning extended into a comprehensive study of science and nature. Kelly wrote, "By gaining more intimate knowledge into His creations, they believed it allowed them to become closer to their creator. Anyone allowed to know the innermost workings of His world was clearly in His grace."
I can think of one distinct individual who would have a problem with the tree-chopping. Who has the greatest resentment of man's dominion over Earth's resources? It is the very same evil creature who ran around the film in the guise of a black goat. As the Biblical story goes, Satan held a festering jealousy of the elevated status that man was given in God's creation. He could never understand this privilege. What is man that God is so mindful of him? Why should he deserve such a special place? Why should God crown him with glory and honor? The jealous fallen angel craved to punish man and bring about his downfall. This nasty little film is Satan's wet dream.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) was another film that influenced The Witch.
Ingmar Bergman's devilish Hour of the Wolf (1968) has received attention of late for its connection to two films, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Witch (2015). The film is a nice complement to both of its better-known coven cousins.
Hour of the Wolf is described by Wikipedia as a "surrealist–psychological horror–drama." This is also the way that critics often describe Rosemary's Baby. The films do in fact have many similarities. It is no wonder that, in March, Close-Up Cinema exhibited Rosemary's Baby and Hour of the Wolf together as a double bill in London.
Let us begin with the plot of Hour of the Wolf. An unhappy artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) move to a new home on a small desolate island. Johan hopes that the serenity of the island will allow him to overcome his torments (from an unspecified trauma) and recover from exhaustion.
This is similar to the plot of Rosemary's Baby. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, is an unhappy artist who moves into a new home with his soon-to-be pregnant wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow). But Guy's unhappiness has to do with his ambitions for fame and fortune. Johan is already famous and he hates being an artist. He believes that his talent as a painter is a disease or a perversion. He says, "I call myself an artist for lack of a better name. In my creative work is nothing implicit except compulsion. Through no fault of mine I’ve been pointed out as something extraordinary, a calf with five legs, a monster." Johan is a humble, sensitive and reluctant artist. Guy is a vain, ruthless and ambitious artist.
The Borgs meet their strange and creepy neighbors, Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson) and his wife Corinne (Gertrude Fridh). The baron and his wife act very sociable, inviting the couple to a dinner party at their castle, but Alma can see that the baron and his wife are trying to come between her and Johan for a sinister purpose. She tries desperately to draw her husband away from the von Merkens and their strange friends. Gordon Thomas of Bright Lights Film Journal described these new acquaintances as possibly "a cadre of vampires, a coven of witches, a passel of ghosts, or all three at once."
Except for the castle, this is exactly the plot of Rosemary's Baby.
|Ruth Gordon is a diabolical neighbor in Rosemary's Baby (1968).|
One of the baron's associates, Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg), comes to the Borg's cottage to invite the couple to another dinner party. He tells Johan, "One of the invited will interest you. Veronica Vogler. She is coming. Are you?"
This is a gun that Jonah will later use to shoot Alma. Alma has been saying that these people want her out of the way so that they can get to Jonah. Lindhorst, who oozes malevolence, seems to understand that he is endangering Alma by putting a gun into the hands of her unstable husband.
Johan steps into a chamber of Hell when he returns to the van Merkens castle. Jeff Stafford, a contributor to the TCM website, wrote, "In the end, Hour of the Wolf is a gothic and disturbing meditation that is often impenetrable in its meaning though a good deal of the film works solely on the power of its imagery - a man who suddenly walks up the wall and onto the ceiling, an old crone who removes her eyes, places them in water glasses and then tears off her face, a young, half-naked boy who attacks Johan while he is fishing and is beaten to death and tossed in the sea where his corpse hovers like a ghost just beneath the surface."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote ". . . if we allow the images to slip past the gates of logic and enter the deeper levels of our mind, and if we accept Bergman's horror story instead of questioning it, Hour of the Wolf works magnificently. So delicate is the wire it walks, however, that the least hostility from the audience can push it across into melodrama. But it isn't that. If you go to see it, see it on Bergman's terms."
Now, let me address the film's similarities to The Witch. Matt Patches of Grantland noted after an interview with The Witch's director Robert Eggers, "His filmmaking heroes are icons: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and Ingmar Bergman, a name he repeats six times out of pure excitement." Eggers said in another interview, "I talk about Bergman a hell of a lot. I just think he’s the best. Every frame is filled with such compassion for his characters that you just feel it. . . Bergman really wants to look at the dark side of humanity instead of shining a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling." Eggers proclaimed more succinctly in yet another interview, "I just love Bergman so much. I just love him." Eggers said that Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) was a "big influence," but he was clear that this was not the only Bergman film to have an impact on The Witch. Another Bergman film that he cited was Hour of the Wolf.
We have our protagonists in both films relocating to a remote location surrounded by dark woods. Like the family in The Witch, the couple in Hour of the Wolf lives in a cottage with a thatched roof.
One scene in particular stands out to me. A self-proclaimed hag acts on two separate occasions to kiss Johan. Both times, she aggressively snatches onto Johan with a claw-like hand and puts her lips on his mouth as if she is trying to devour him. The first time, she comes up behind Johan, grabs him around the shoulder, and forces him to turn towards her.
She is direct in her approach the second time.
As these images show, the witch who brings about Caleb's demise also snatches Caleb with a claw-like hand and also subjects the young boy to a devouring kiss.
Another woman who looks even more like a witch reveals that she is wearing a false face.
The witch who seduces Caleb also wears a false face. Witches in many other films wear false faces.
I just saw this trope used in an episode of Game of Thrones ("The Red Woman," April 24, 2016). It is revealed in the closing moments of the episode that Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, relies on the supernatural powers of a ruby necklace to make herself appear young.
The coven draws Johan into their grasp with promises of sexual pleasure. Afterwards, Alma finds Johan in the woods injured and exhausted much like Caleb was found by his family after his sexual encounter with the witch.
One distinct image shows up again and again in Cries and Whispers, Hour of the Wolf and The Witch.
Thomas provided an explanation for Hour of the Wolf that possibly provides a clue to the meaning of The Witch. He wrote, "Bergman’s film seems to mock the narcissistic inner life of creative men while paying homage to the emotional wholesomeness of women — women like his erstwhile girlfriend, Ullmann. Briefly stated: man in love with death; woman in love with life. Liv constantly sees possibility and continuance, but Bergman is one of those death-haunted artists, like Mahler or Lowry, and that’s hell on partnerships. But what can you do? I can hear Bergman say on one of his better days. If the demons leave, maybe the angels will, too. . . ."
William, the Puritan father of The Witch, is haunted by the possibility that he will displease God and be condemned to an eternity in Hell. He is, in his desire to be a perfect man of God, focused on his inner life. His daughter, Thomasin, is drawn to earthly pleasures. The Devil wins her devotion when he asks her, "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"
Johan and William are both obsessed men who have taken family to an isolated place to find freedom and solitude, but the isolation only makes the men more fixated on their neurotic thoughts and subjects their family to greater stress and danger.
Johan's obsession to see Veronica again is being exploited by his perverse new acquaintances, who are manipulating the troubled artist for the sole purpose of humiliating him. They expect the man to suffer an emotional breakdown by forcing him to confront his repressed desires. Frank Gado, the author of "The Passion of Ingmar Bergman," wrote, "[T]he demons take control of Johan and lead him to the tryst that seals his insanity."
G. Clark Finfrock of Film Misery wrote, "The end of the film descends into a paranoid, Polanskiesque fantasia of the absurd. I wouldn’t dream of ruining it for you, but it involves walking on the ceiling, a woman peeling her face off, and a bizarre public sex ritual. If you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby or, more precisely, The Tenant, you’ll have an idea what to expect. Does it really happen? Is it all in Johan’s mind?"
The film's weird assortment of characters is not real. For Johan, who is suffering great shame and guilt, the dinner party guests represent the demons of his mind. Gado recognized that the demons were "shaped out of self-reproach." Lindhorst, the guiding force of the demons, was, according to Gado, "the self-mocking consciousness, the artist's persecuting intellect." Alma is so close to her husband and so immersed in his anxieties that she comes to share his apparitions. She says in the film's final scene, "A woman who lives with a man for a long time, does she not end up like the man? She loves him, attempts to think like him. See like him. It is said such things can change a person. Is that why I started to see the other ones?"
Surreal films that trade in psychological horror are usually seen by critics as paranoid fantasies that, despite the appearance of ghosts and demons, have nothing at all to do with the supernatural. Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique Online questioned if Satan really plays a role in Rosemary's Baby. He wrote, "The film even emphasizes the weakness of the supernatural explanation in a scene wherein Rosemary seeks help from a doctor and babbles out a litany of her suspicions — which sound like crazy ramblings that add up to nothing."
It is conceivable that there is something other than a supernatural explanation to The Witch. It may be that William's shame and guilt over his failure to sustain his family has caused his sin-crazed family to suffer mass hysteria about the diabolical forces in the woods. Or there may even be a simpler explanation. We just need to keep an open mind to identity another likely suspect in the mayhem. Thomasin was the last person to be with the baby before he died. She was the last person to be with Caleb before he was stricken ill. She was the last person to be with the twins before they disappeared. She was the only person to be with her father when he was gouged to death. Was the mother right? Did this repressed young woman slaughter her family Lizzie Borden-style? Is that the real story of The Witch? This may be the metaphor that was suggested by Tasha Robinson (See my previous article). Eggers said, "It’s interesting to see, in a society that is trying to snuff out female power, how these kinds of weird explosions can happen."
Evidently, a horrifically evil witch with an explosive temper is a triumph of feminism. The badder, the better. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas of Overland wrote:
[S]creen culture moved increasingly towards a softening of the witch, peaking in the 1990s with the television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and movies like The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996). Mainstream postfeminism in the era of the Spice Girls broadly reconfigured grotesque, malevolent evil into something far sassier and lip-gloss wearing.The softening of the witch certainly occurred with films like Hocus Pocus (1993).
While this quirkification of the witch satisfied many feminist critics at the time – understood as a shift from a blanket notion monstrous-femininity to a more positive representation of 'grrrl power' branded agency – for me, at least, something important was lost. I mourned for these vivacious teens their right to a less acceptable form of monstrosity, one that they could – if they so wished – be a more radical force to unleash their own gyno-rage however they damned well pleased.
When witches become palatable, they become controllable: I’d rather be a mad, dangerous, powerful crone than teen-screen friendly commercialised wank fodder, be it literally or – for the many feminist academics who went gaga for this mode of supposedly ‘progressive’ representation – something more symbolic.
|Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus (1993)|
The Devil's Bride, also released in 1968, involves yet another cult of Satanists tormenting an innocent, unsuspecting couple. The high priest, Mocata (Charles Gray), seeks to initiate the couple into their coven so that he can summon his beloved Devil and deliver the young woman to him as a bride.
|Charles Gray and Nike Arrighi in The Devil's Bride (1968)|
Even more important are the films' various endings. The ending of Rosemary's Baby celebrates motherhood, which is so powerful that it transcends the epic battle of Good versus Evil. A mother must care for her baby even if that baby is the anti-Christ. The Witch presents an emptier and less interesting message. Unlike Rosemary's Baby, this film mocks and demeans motherhood. At one point, the witch causes the mother Katherine to hallucinate that her missing baby has been returned to her. Katherine attempts to breastfeed the baby, but we are shown the truth: the mother has brought a raven to her naked breast and the raven is using its lacerating beak to bloody and mutilate the breast. This vicious trick on the part of the witch (and the filmmaker) is clearly designed as a violent mockery of motherhood. The Witch ends with Thomasin rejecting home and family and taking Evil's side in its war against Good.
Hour of the Wolf has a sad ending, The Devil's Bride has a happy ending, and Rosemary's Baby has an ambiguous ending. Jason S. Marsiglia of Diabolique Magazine wrote:
The stark contradiction between the worldviews of Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out [an alternate title] is tellingly expressed in both films' culminating dialog: Toward the end of Rosemary's Baby, Sidney Blackmer nihilistically proclaims, "God is dead! Satan lives!" Conversely, Devil ends with Christopher Lee’s stoic, hope-filled proclamation that "[God] is indeed the one we must thank."The Witch has an ending so angry and nihilistic that it might even unnerve Satan.
If the man-child had his way, Mount Rushmore would be redesigned to include a 60- foot-tall granite likeness of Alfred E. Neuman. He is, after all, the greatest and most longstanding icon of the man-child culture.
The Times' Edward Rothstein wrote, "[F]or the Mad writers, Alfred's [face] is the moronic face left when authority is stripped of all pretense. But it is also the unfazed visage of the 'gang of idiots' creating and reading the magazine, who are treated like clods by the surrounding world, but are really immune to its surreptitious designs. The unknowing child with the unyielding smile helps unmask adult venality. . ." It is no wonder that the man-child faction sees Neuman as one of their own. The man-child, too, is unfazed by authority, unyielding to adult vices, and immune to the designs of maturity. He, too, promotes the idea that adulthood is a mask that needs to be stripped away. Of course, civilization was built upon the designs and virtues of adulthood. But this is of no interest to our carefree ("What — Me Worry?") friend.
Neuman, who Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman described as "part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid," is sitting sleepily on the threshold of puberty. He is knowingly defying the beckoning demands of adulthood, which bring nothing but worry. Al Feldstein, the editor of Mad magazine from 1956 to 1985, carefully worked with illustrator Norman Mingo on the design of Neuman. He made it clear to Mingo that he didn't want the boy to "look like an idiot — I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him."
Peter Reitan masterfully traced the origins of the Neuman character to a well-received illustration created to promote an 1894 Broadway show called "The New Boy." The play, which offered a seminal representation of the comic man-child, was a forerunner of Billy Wilder's classic The Major and the Minor (which is discussed at length in my latest book).
Reitan noted, "The New Boy was an immediate success when it opened in London on February 28, 1894, where it ran for fourteen months. Charles Frohman purchased the American rights to the play in March 1894. Charles Frohman produced the original Broadway run and 'original cast' tour of The New Boy. Gustave Frohman produced a national tour that began during the original Broadway run and lasted for more than a year."
The show opened on Broadway with Willis Searle in the lead role, but the critics were thoroughly displeased with Searle's performance and the show's producers realized that the show was doomed to a short run unless they found themselves a new actor. Searle was promptly replaced by James T. Powers, who The Oxford Companion to American Theatre described as "a thorough genius run wild, with a face quite as grotesque as a gargoyle." Reitman provided further details on the matter:
The opening was marred by terrible reviews blamed largely on Searle's poor performance. In his autobiography, "Twinkle Little Star, Sparkling Memories of Seventy Years," James T. Powers recounts that Charles Frohman offered him the role on the day after opening night, promising to give him a "big spread in the newspapers and advertise [him] as 'The New, New Boy.'" When Powers assumed the role on October 9, 1894, The New Boy was "greatly improved" (The World, October 20, 1894) and "a big hit, the first semblance of great success" that would "go like wildfire now" (The New York Times, October 10, 1894)."The New York Times also added, "James T. Powers took the place of Willis Searle as Archibald Rennick in 'The New Boy' at the Standard Theatre last night, and the result was a big hit, the first semblance of great success that Arthur Law's very clever farcical comedy has had in New York."
|James T. Powers|
The plot of the play was pure farce. Archibald Rennick and his wife, Martha Rennick, have lost their savings in a bad investment. Mrs. Rennick seeks help from an old paramour, Dr. Candy, who is the headmaster at Birchgrove School. She understands that Birchgrove needs a new school matron and she hopes that Dr. Candy will give her the job. Dr. Candy, a good-natured old bachelor, remains devoted to Mrs. Rennick. He doesn't understand that she has remarried after her first husband's death and he assumes that the diminutive, juvenile-looking Archibald is the son of her late husband. He promises to will his estate to her on the condition that she never remarries. The Rennicks' financial prospects now depend upon Archibald pretending to be an adolescent schoolboy. Archibald's problem is that, as the new boy at school, he is hazed mercilessly by classmates.
Despite the hazing, Archibald's worst humiliations are inflicted upon him by adults. Dr. Candy is patronizing as he pats Archibald on the head. Mr. Roach, the father of Archibald's student friend Nancy, bounces the small man on his knee. This is something that thoroughly discomforts Archibald, who demands that the man not "joggle" him. As part of his hazing, Archibald is forced to steal apples from an orchard. Unfortunately, he is not as stealthy as the typical boy and he is caught by the police. The police return him to the school, where he is sentenced to a dozen strokes with a birch-rod.
|Willis Searle as Archibald Rennick and Helen Kunnaird as Mrs. Rennick|
"The New Boy" combined elements of an 1882 bestselling novel, "Vice Versa," and an immensely popular 1892 play, "Charley's Aunt." "Vice Versa" involved a father magically exchanging bodies with his son and having now, in his new form, to endure various hardships at his son's boarding school.
Let us look a little more closely at the plot of "Charley's Aunt." An Oxford undergraduate, Lord Fancourt Babberley, agrees to help his schoolmates out of a bad situation by dressing up as a schoolmate's rich widow aunt. Babberley, who has attained exceptional charm in his drag apparel, must fend off advances from various men when all he wants to do is go off in secret to smoke a cigar or shave. It makes the situation even more complicated for Babberly when he finds himself aroused by a beautiful visitor, Ela Delahay. This is horribly frustrating as the man cannot act on his desire as it would mean exposing his true identity.
In 1927, Warner Brothers intended to produce a film version of "The New Boy" with Sydney Chaplin, who had recently had great success with the studio's adaptation of "Charley's Aunt." At first, it was announced that the film would be directed by Alf Goulding. A subsequent press release indicated that the studio had turned over the direction of the film to Chuck Reisner. But Chaplin broke off his relations with Warner Brothers to accept a lucrative offer to make films in London. A film version of "The New Boy" has never been produced.
|Powers in adult off-stage dress|
These are stills from Powers' many years on stage.
This month, I have a wide variety of random items to share.
In honor of my latest book "I Won't Grow Up!", I went looking for examples of Laurel and Hardy at their most childish. First, we have a scene from Be Big! (1931) in which Laurel leaves on vacation with his toy boat.
Then, in this scene from Sons of the Desert (1933), Hardy becomes as timid as a naughty schoolboy after his wife (Mae Busch) catches him in a whopper of a lie.
A face distorted by a cracked mirror was a good visual gag that turned up repeatedly in silent films. Here is one example from Our Gang's The Mysterious Mystery! (1924).
Larry Semon used the same gag the same year in Kid Speed (1924).
I wrote about this comic business in a previous article.
In Long Pants (1927), Harry Langdon has a a bit of a struggle as he sits atop a crate that contains an alligator.
A couple of dogs replaced the alligator when this routine was reworked for Our Gang's Love My Dog (1927).
A balloon with a face could cause an enormous amount of distress and confusion in a silent film comedy. Take, for instance, this scene from the "Our Gang" comedy Spoofing Spooks (1928). Farina (Allen Hoskins) is about to race through this creepy cemetery believing that the balloon floating behind him is a ghost out to capture him.
I previously wrote about this routine here and here. The routine is more extensively covered in the "Spooky Apparitions" chapter of my book "The Funny Parts."
Familiar gags and routines often received the pint-sized treatment in the "Our Gang" comedies. An old Commedia dell'arte routine, "Lazzo of the Living Corpse," turned up in Spoofing the Spooks. Farina believes that he is carrying a corpse in his sack when, in fact, the sack contains a prankster who is very much alive.
Universal distributed the Century series "Buster Brown" and "The Newlyweds and Their Baby," which copied the type of childish mishaps that had made "Our Gang" comedies a success. Buster Brown's dog Tige was played by Pete the Dog, who later became Our Gang's faithful dog. Gus Meins, who directed both of the Century series, went on to become the senior director of the "Our Gang" comedies from 1934 to 1936.
A bear and a mountain lion frighten Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard in Back to the Woods (1918).
I wrote in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film" that Max Linder found clever ways to incorporate footage from his films into his stage acts. I learned that, in November, 1910, Linder exhibited his film Max Has the Boxing Fever (1910) as part of a boxing act that he performed at Paris' Olympia Theatre. Variety reported: "Max Linder, of Pathe fame, does a boxing match on skates with Tom Pender, in a Montmartre cafe. They lead up to this with a moving picture showing Linder at a match, where he acquires a mania to spar. The number is a skit on the Jeffries-Johnson fight."
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann (2016) won the Best Film award from the International Federation of Film Critics at Cannes Film Festival. The highly acclaimed film, which involves a father using corny pranks to reconnect with his troubled adult daughter, features the latest rendition of the longstanding handcuff routine. I look forward to seeing Toni Erdmann as I have high regard for Ade's last film, Everyone Else (2009). Ade brings to filmmaking something that is provided in an insufficient quantity in today's films: humanity.
Here is a cute scene from a 1928 "Big Boy" comedy, Navy Beans.
Pathé Frères released this lion comedy to the home movie market under the title Les lions sont Lachés (which translates into English as Lions on the Loose). It is a cut-down version of a 1920 Universal-Century comedy, Lion’s Jaws and Kitten’s Paws.
Harold Lloyd received an unfair slight on a recent episode of Silicon Valley. You can find the slight at the 2:35 mark of this video.
A distressed Roscoe Arbuckle delivers a camera look in The Rough House (1917).
Of course, the reigning king of the camera look remains Mr. Oliver Hardy.
Warner Brothers' war comedy You're in the Army Now (1941), a failed effort to turn Jimmy Durante and Phil Silvers into a comedy team, freely borrowed gags and other ideas from Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The scene with the house titling over the side of a cliff is a reworking of a classic scene from Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925).
The house stuck on railroad tracks is from Keaton's One Week (1921).
Using oversized furniture to make Durante and Silvers look like children is from Laurel and Hardy's Brats (1930).
Durante, the master of catchphrases, tried futilely throughout the film to turn "Not the hands!" into a catchphrase.
My guess is that the oversized furniture idea originated in British pantomime shows. Here, Our Gang makes use of this business for an imaginative dream sequence in Mary Queen of Tots (1925).
The same type of effects turned up in Our Gang's Cat, Dog & Co. (1929).
It was always a treat when performing goats were on the bill at the local vaudeville house.
|Lyons and Moran|
I have been collecting images of Dorothy Devore, another comedy star featured in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film." Here's a few of the images.
|Devore as Cleopatra in Nothing Like It (1921)|
|Devore with Walter Hiers in Hold Your Breath (1924)|
|Devore with Louise Fazenda in A Broadway Butterfly (1925)|
|Harry L. Rattenberry, Lila Leslie, Earle Rodney and Devore in Know Thy Wife (1918).|
|Devore and Earle Rodney starred together in more than a dozen films for producer Al Christie between 1991 and 1921|
|Thornton Edwards, Roscoe Karnes, Devore and Earle Rodney in Oh, Susie, Be Careful (1919)|
|Devore with Muriel Evans|
I updated my article about revolving door routines. I wasn't aware until recently that Roscoe Arbuckle performed a revolving door routine in His Wife's Mistakes (1916), which preceded Charlie Chaplin's famous revolving door routine from The Cure (1917) by more than a year.
I also updated my article "Musicians on the Range" to include a scene from Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).
Tamara Flynn posted the above photo of Hamilton on ebay and asked me if I could identify the film title. I believe that the film is The Speeder (1922). The actor hanging onto Hamilton's leg is Tom Kennedy, who is credited as playing a neighborhood tough in The Speeder.
James W. Dean, critic of the Newspaper Enterprise, was a hard-won fan of Hamilton. He wrote of The Rainmaker (1922), "Our own thought is that The Rainmaker has more laughs than [Charlie Chaplin's] Pay Day last week and a heck of a lot more new stuff. 'Ham' has ventured into new fields for his comedy and has scored plenty." Dean was less enthusiastic of The Speeder because the film maintained no consistent story. It was Hamilton's preference to loosely string together a succession of gag and routines.
The film opens with a rundown of the different types of automobiles on the road in 1922. Then, we are introduced to Hamilton, feeling very important as he drives his modest new automobile. The Charlotte News noted, "There is almost a pathetic touch in Hamilton's portrayal of the young man who has spent his life's savings for a little flivver and then finds that all the fellows with big cars want to pick on him." The motorist's biggest problem occurs as he attempts to park his vehicle.
Then, suddenly, the film goes off in another direction. Dean wrote, "Hamilton is trapped in a sinking rowboat. The instructions for wearing the life belt are so involved that he sinks before he can adjust it. He is shown on the floor of the pond still holding the life preserver and reading the instructions." This was a variation of a routine that the comedian performed the previous year in Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921).
Hamilton emerges from the pond with a frog under his cap. Exhibitor's Trade Review noted, "[The frog's] jumping causes the cap to rise in apparent salute from the head of its wearer."
Other situations follow. Exhibitor's Trade Review reported, "There is another exceedingly funny episode in which the comedian has difficulty or rather a chain of difficulties trying to ignite a cigarette from a cigar lighter."
The Charlotte News concluded, "[N]o attention is paid to the ordinary speed limit for creating laughs, which come so fast that it is just one long scream."
I discussed in a recent article that diminutive, red-haired comedian James T. Powers was a forefather of today's man-child comic and possibly a model of man-child icon Alfred E. Neuman. But I was informed by Peter Reitan, the author of Early Sports and Pop Culture History blog, that Powers had a loose connection with another diminutive, red-haired man-child icon, Peter Pan. In 1892, Powers produced and starred in "Walker, London," an early play by Pan creator James M. Barrie. It was because Barrie was able to establish himself as a successful playwright with "Walker, London" that he was later able to acquire financal backing for his plays "Quality Street,""The Admirable Crichton," and "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up."
It was an occupational habit for a popular comedian to cross the paths of famous men. Powers wrote in his autobiography:
The great inventor, Thomas Edison, was a frequent visitor to the Casino [Theatre]; on account of his deafness he always sat in the front row. Having a great admiration for him, whenever I had a humorous line to say, I would walk near the footlights, and camouflaging my intentions by not looking in his direction, I would fairly throw the line at him. One morning I received a scathing notice in the paper to this effect: 'Mr. Powers, whose work I have always considered artistic and clever, has developed a technique that would do credit to a monologist at Tom Gould's 'Free and Easy.' Last night he nearly hung over the footlights as he threw his lines at the audience. I am disappointed in this young man.".
One of Power's good friends was comedian Roy Atwell, who later performed the voice of "Doc" in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfes (1937). Here is a clip of Atwell at work:
You can read more about the comic man-child in "I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present."
Famed author George Lunt wrote, "[S]urely a sweeter creature than young Alice Atherton never gladdened the eyes of the weary seekers in this world. . ."
I became aware of Atherton while reading the biography of comedian James T. Powers, who worked with Atherton in the show "A Dream, or Fun in a Photograph Gallery." Powers wrote, "I'll never forget. . . her lovely character and her angelic face."
Dr. David S. Shields of the University of South Carolina profiled Atherton on his "Broadway Photographs" website. He wrote:
One of the best-natured, adventurous performers of the 1870s-90s, this native of Cincinnati delighted contemporaries with her gift of impersonation. She began as a child actress in her home city, in "The Sea of Ice." Discovered by Lydia Thompson, Atherton enrolled as one of her girls in "Sinbad" and "Ixion." There she met English performer Willie Edouin whom she married in 1873. They became mainstays of the Coville burlesque companies. Edouin organized the entertainment "Dreams, or Fun in the Photograph Gallery," a piece that showed off Alice Atherton's genius for impersonation and popularized the comic skit as a stage form. Her versatility as a performer was legendary. She was a show-stopping comic singer, a virtuoso whistler, and her "laughing song" became a signature piece. Though a parodist, she also excelled in comic roles that did not require playing a type. Her capacity to communicate sincerity in her voice made her an able tragedienne as well.Atherton delighted audiences with her performance in "A Dream." In the second act, the actress remained enclosed inside a large gold picture frame as she impersonated Buffalo Bill, George Washington, Martha Washington, President Chester Arthur, and Rip van Winkle. The New York Clipper reported, "The last-named, showing Rip, with his long, white hair and flowing beard, after his strange and protracted sleep, was really splendid in its realism, and called forth a hearty round of applause." During the run of the show, Atherton also recreated the classic performances of famed stage actors, including Henry Irving and Mary Eastlake. The Boston Evening Transcript described Atherton as being "[a]dmirably made up" and said of her performance: "the walk, the voice, the gestures are faithful counterfeits."
Powers was proud of the show's success. He wrote, "This was one of the first musical farces, and its instantaneous success started a vogue for musical comedies." The comedian was lured to leave Edouin and Atherton by a producer who was willing to pay the comedian three times the amount that he was already earning, but Powers had such great fondness for the show that he did not hesitate to turn down the offer.
Atherton followed her success with "Laughing Song" with other songs. In 1894, she was successful with "The Barmaid Song" from the Broadway show "Jaunty Jane Shore." In 1898, she introduced the novelty song "The Singing Watermelon" assisted by a chorus of blackface dancers, who were dressed as watermelon seeds (Presumably, Atherton was dressed as the other parts of the watermelon).
Atherton died from pneumonia in 1899. Her daughter, May Edouin, paid tribute to her mother by performing her famous "Laughing Song" as part of her vaudeville act.
The showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, were bowed, bent and broken by feminists who vehemently protested the series' steady stream of comely bare-chested ladies and sadistic rape scenes. The issue reached a fevered height during the series' fifth season. Kate Aurthur of BuzzFeed wrote:
Despite its strong female leads, Game of Thrones has gotten considerable criticism for what is undeniably a lot of nudity, which has been called extraneous, and for its use of sex as a plot device. To quote only a small selection of the ongoing outcry, Mary McNamara wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "maybe it’s time to tone down the tits"; TV writer and academic Myles McNutt invented the word "sexposition" to describe the show’s tic of underlining expository speeches with nudity or sex; and, during Season 2, xoJane’s executive editor, Emily McCombs, wrote a post with the headline "I Think King Joffrey Is Activating My PTSD" after a particularly hideous (and not-in-the-book) scene during which Joffrey forced one prostitute to beat another while he watched.Kate Maltby of The Spectator wrote:
Naturally, I’ve had high-minded things to say about the show’s problematic gender politics. Every Monday night, I gather with my sister-feminists on Twitter and muse aloud about the show’s treatment of female characters. And yes, it’s appalling. Last night, Queen Cersei Lannister, who’s spent the last five seasons channelling Snow White’s stepmother on speed, had a moment of comeuppance. In public penance for her crimes, she was stripped naked, sentenced to walk through the streets of her capital while every man, woman or child could spit upon her body (which, predictably, didn’t look as if it had raised three teenage children). A woman who’d fulfilled our worst stereotypes of women who get too close to power – manipulating men to do her murders for her – cut down to size, and reminded that any man on the street could take pleasure in telling her to suck his cock.This is what I got for your sister-feminists.
Eliana Dockterman of Time wrote:
Daenerys emerging from a fire with her baby dragons, or Brienne taking down the Hound — these were glorious moments that reminded fans these abused women had personalities, motivations and the potential to best their enemies. But this season, the women on Game of Thrones have felt impotent. Sansa and Shireen have had no control over their respective fates, and even the so-called powerful women have been neutralized. . . Cersei was so blinded by jealousy and greed that she couldn’t see her own doom barreling towards her. Same goes for Margaery, who after deftly handling Cersei walked directly into her trap. Daenerys and her supposedly invincible army were constantly outwitted by some guys in masks. Brienne has been sitting in a castle. Arya spent nearly all her time washing dead men’s feet.So, as their penance, Benioff and Weiss made a point to adapt a feminist perspective for the new season of Game of Thrones. It was an effort that did not turn out well. Tyler O'Neil of PJ Media wrote:. . .
Many critics have thrown up their hands during this season of Game of Thrones, as female characters have been brutalized over and over again. Sansa’s rape, in particular, was so far beyond the pale that Senator Claire McCaskill declared she’s done with the show, and feminist genre website The Mary Sue announced it would cease all promotion of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones has a long history of sexual violence, and yet this season has felt more abusive of women than previous ones.
Game of Thrones season 6 premiered this week, and many outlets are praising the first episode as a victory for "women's empowerment." Ironically, the most empowering moments were also the least compelling, as a group of women carelessly murdered three very powerful men. "The Red Woman" had great moments as well, but underdeveloped violent heroines are more of a weakness than an asset.Prominent in the Season 6 premiere was the warrior Sand sisters, Obara, Tyene, and Nymeria. The characters were designed by Benioff and Weiss to be feminist-friendly. But a character designed to make a political statement or appease political activists never has depth or substance. O'Neil said of the sisters, "[E]ach of these ladies gets about one sentence of backstory. Everything about them is summed up in their attitude: they are kick-ass teenage assassins who exist to show how badass and sexy young ladies can be." The kick-ass, badass sisters were shallow and boring. O'Neil added, "Obara, Tyene, and Nymeria each have their special weapons: knives, a whip, and spears. These weapons are less a natural fit for their characters and more a flashy action nod, like the different weapons of each ninja turtle. This style renders such female characters almost farcical, compared to the fleshed-out complex characters of Daenerys, Catelyn, Brienne, and Cersei. Gone is any sense of restraint and seriousness -- these women are the teenage dream of girls who are into action or boys who want to combine their lust with violence onscreen." Dockterman noted more succinctly, "The Sand Snakes, who were touted as a feminist force and potential fan favorites, fizzled." Murderous acts and general ass-kicking is a poor replacement for compelling character development. Besides, it is wrong-headed and immoral to tell women that they can only achieve empowerment by fiendishly killing men.
Every woman in the series is now strong and good. Despite her many evil deeds, Cersei (Lena Headey) is suddenly being presented as an empowered woman that we are expected to cheer. Her canoodling with her brother is no longer depicted as a dark and shameful act. The showrunners seem determined to smash the longstanding taboo of incest when they have Cersei manfully grab her brother and plant a big wet kiss on his lips. This is, by every indication, designed to be a cheer-rousing moment. Incest, hooray! A number of viewers have taken to the message boards to say that Cersei and her brother should be left alone to carry on their torrid affair. I am so disappointed in Benioff and Weiss. Incest pushers, really? What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.
Let us look for a moment at the recent episode "Book of the Stranger" (May 15, 2016). This episode makes it very clear that the series' women have become brave and strong while the men have become spineless crybabies. Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) is a fiercely courageous longship commander with aspirations to be a queen. She looks with disgust at her broken brother, Theon (Alfie Allen). Theon is spineless and dickless, which is a fact that is mentioned endlessly by Yara and other characters.
A once-brave knight, Ser Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), has been broken under his imprisonment by the Faith Militant. Now, he sobs uncontrollably as his sister, Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), hugs him to her chest to comfort him.
Even a prepubescent female is formidable in this brave new world. I am referring to little Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey). The message, evidently, is that a female no longer derives her greatest power from a hospitable womb. It is now a female's spunk that is her greatest asset.
Game of Thrones has turned into a mucky pile of political propaganda. More and more, the series stands as a simpleminded, heavyhanded parable recited in soothing tones to cranky leftist extremists in need of a bedtime story.
The Sworn Brothers of the Night's Watch are the border patrol for the Seven Kingdoms. For eight millennial, the group has stood guard at a 700-foot wall to keep the wildings out of their kingdoms. Many of the brothers become violently upset when their new Lord Commander, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), allows the mass migration of wildings. The parallels to modern events is too painfully obvious.
In the latest episode, an empowered woman, a lesbian sea dog, a liberated black slave and a dwarf outcast pledge their unity and commitment to defeat white patriarchy and religious authority. I offer this scene as proof that the empowered woman, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), has become the most boring character in television history.
I was ready to say a lot more about this terribly disappointing season of Game of Thrones, but I found that Erik Kain has pretty much covered my other complaints. Click here for Kain's remarks.
Yes, Erik, you got it exactly right. I remember Daenerys being a more complex in the books. She had good qualities and bad qualities. She was a flawed character that I did not necessarily want to win the throne in the end. Now that she has become a fully empowered female character, she has become reduced to a bland "Mary Sue." It is a foregone conclusion that she will ultimately occupy the throne. That couldn't be more uninteresting or more boring. And, as soon as Sansa became empowered, her half-brother Jon Snow was rendered fairly useless in the siblings' effort to recover their family castle Winterfell.
Excuse me for going off topic for a moment. Am I the only one who thought that Hodor's death was the height of silliness?
Q: What has two-thousand legs and says "Ho-de-do, ho-de-do, ho-de-do"?
A: One-thousand White Walkers running for an elevator.
I once looked forward to every episode of Game of Thrones and I felt that every season ended too soon. But now I have lost interest in the series.
The current season's scenes of female empowerment are poorly conceived in their attempt to balance out the abuse inflicted on female characters in the previous season. I must say that I did not approve of the rapes or the bare breasts, but it bothers me to witness Benioff and Weiss having to suffer their own walk of shame. It makes it far worse that the hapless duo has had to drag me, a faithful viewer, along for the slog.
I love the old television shows that I find on YouTube. This is an interesting clip from a "Yancy Derringer" YouTube channel. One of these actresses had a daughter who turned out winning two Best Actress Oscars. The other actress had a daughter who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1980 and won three Lead Actress Emmy awards during the 1990s.
The dark-haired actress lying in bed is Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field, and the actress with light brown hair is Frances Bergen, mother of Candice Bergen.
Recently, I was reading vaudeville notices in an 1898 edition of the New York Dramatic Mirror. The notices on comedy acts referred almost exclusively to double acts. Comedy at that time was mostly sketches and patter routines, which made solo comedians something of a rarity. The double acts fell into many different categories. Take, for instances, the following acts playing in New York that week: Gracey and Burnett, eccentric comedians; Fields and Woolley, German comedians; Swan and Bambard, acrobatic comedians; Snyder and Buckley, musical comedians; Merkle and Algere, midget comedians. These are, without exception, forgotten acts. I thought that it would be worthwhile to run through the history of these funny pairs and see if I could shed a light on their accomplishments.
Let us start with Dan Gracey and Ada B. Burnett.
Burnett was primarily a singer. She sang Irish songs and Negro songs. She had her greatest success with Negro songs, including "Goodbye, My Honey, I'm Gone" and "New Coon in Town." As a white woman who sang Negro songs, she fell into the category of singers commonly known as "coon-shouters."
Cartoonist John Adcock wrote on his blog "Doggone That Train":
[Ada B. Burnett] popularized "New Coon in Town" in 1886. In October 1888 she performed at New York's Adelphi Theatre as Ada B. Burnett's Female Minstrel Majestics, a troupe of twenty "Handsome Ladies' aided by a grand company of twenty.
In 1887 she appeared at the Adelphi theatre in Buffalo, New York and made a "clever hit."
"She contralto voice, and a reckless abandon and good humor, a swagger that is decidedly catchy, and with all these attractions it was no wonder that she was the favorite of the audience. Her "Never Take No for an Answer" brought a handsome bouquet, and as an encore she gave a "New Coon in Town," which brought down the house." – Buffalo Courier, Sept. 13, 1887
In 1895 Burnett teamed as a coon-shouter with her husband Dan Gracey, "Eccentric Irish Comedian." The couple were billed as "The Hottest Coon Singers in America, Bar None!" She was still ending the show with "New Coon in Town."Gracey and Burnett came to specialize in sketch comedy. One of their popular sketches was called "A Royal Janitor."
The couple stuck by one another through good times and bad times. The following notice appeared in The New York Clipper on May 18, 1895: "Mr. and Mrs. Dan Gracey (Ada B. Burnett) mourn the loss of their infant daughter, Marguerite Fern , who died very suddenly of congestive chills. They wish to extend their thanks through The Clipper to those who were kind in their great sorrow."
In 1909, Burnett left entertainment field while her husband pursued a solo act in burlesque. Gracey originated several routines, including "The Disputed Check" (although a Variety critic claimed that the routine shared distinct similarities with earlier routines).
In 1928, Gracey stopped working to care for his wife, who had contracted cancer. On January 12, 1930, Burnett died at her home in Fairhaven, New Jersey. It appears from a review of the trade papers that Gracey never returned to work after his wife's death.
Augustus Yorke and Nicolas Adams were pioneer Hebrew comedians. A specialty of the team was to perform fast-paced patter routines and up-to-date parodies of popular songs. A favorite venue for them was New York City's Orpheum Theater, which was an entertainment showcase in the Yiddish Theater District. At the height of their success, the team starred in a series of lavish musical comedies: "Bankers and Brokers" (1905-1906), "Playing the Ponies" (1908-1909) (originally a vehicle for Kolb and Dill), "Yorke and Adams in Africa" (1910) and "College Life" (1911). Their chief writer was Aaron Hoffman, who worked closely with the team much like John Grant worked with Abbott and Costello.
Variety's Alfred Greason (pen name "Rush') offered a mixed review for the team's efforts in "Playing the Ponies." He wrote:
Yorke and Adams make a very good team of Hebrews, scoring laughs easily and quietly. There are several bits of familiar comedy business introduced, but it is handled differently and gets by nicely. . . The pair sang several new parodies which made distinct hits with the house, but neither of the comedians has any kind of a voice and it is doubtful whether they could get away with the parody thing in vaudeville. While the dressing of the pair is funny, the facial makeup is far from good. They are bewhiskered beyond necessity and neither is pleasant nor wholesome to look at.But, generally, the reviews for their shows were favorable. The Index, a weekly Pittsburgh newspaper, had nothing but praise for "Playing the Ponies." The paper called Yorke and Adams "America's best-known and best-liked Hebrew comedians." The Harrison Telegraph, another Pennsylvania newspaper, said that "Bankers and Brokers" was so "furiously funny" that it "[made] all the competitors look like a bunch of counterfeit nickels." The Minneapolis Journal promised readers that "Bankers and Brokers""will combine good, healthy fun, lively, pretty girls, handsome costumes and graceful dancing into an effective entertainment with elaborate scenery and dazzling effects." "College Life" was well-received by The Cambridge Chronicle. The paper reported:
"College Life" is one of those big vaudeville productions that the public seem to demand nowadays. It is full of ginger from start to finish, with an endless amount of fun, rollicking college songs, and a beautiful stage setting. Yorke and Adams are two of the greatest Hebrew comedians on the stage today.Yorke and Adams played regularly at New York's Hammerstein's Theatre from 1910 to 1912. The critics at Variety never seemed to have much good to say about the team during this period. A common complaint was that the comedians were putting out "worn patter." A critic wrote, "Excepting a parody or two, the Hebrew comedians did the same act as when leaving vaudeville for a production." Another running complaint was that their act was uneven and the team needed to cut out gags that didn't work. Typical was the following remark: "Yorke and Adams got over with their talk and parodies but a portion of their patter could be remodeled." The men appeared to be struggling to keep audiences interested. The following review appeared in Variety on November 19, 1910:
Yorke and Adams didn't finish well. They started away like a pair of race horses, but slowed down toward the middle and closed breathing hard. The pair were probably breaking in some new stuff, for several times they stammered about as though not quite certain of themselves. This was the cause of the weak finish.It seemed at the time that the act of Yorke and Adams had run its course and the entertainers needed to go their separate ways. So, the partnership was ended.
After finding little success with solo acts, the comedians got back together for a reunion tour in 1923. At first, they travelled the vaudeville circuit with a playlet called "Two Sweethearts." Variety said that this new act "scored laughter." Then, they took their act overseas. In June, 1923, they debuted the musical comedy "Partners Again" at The Opera House in South Africa. In December, 1925, they opened in the play "Give and Take" in London. The singing and joking duo received a cordial reaction from English audiences. In 1927, their continued popularity in England led the men to starring in a short film for England's Phonofilm.
The act broke up again in 1927. Both men went on to play character roles in Broadway dramas. In 1927, Yorke played a fence who unloads loot for gangster Chester Morris in "Crime." In 1934, Adams played opposite Walter Huston in "Dodsworth."
Yorke and Adams had entertained separately and together in vaudeville and musical comedy since the 1880s. They had in their time created a formidable body of work. They were remembered with fondness at their passing. Adams died on October 23, 1935. Yorke died on December 27, 1940.
William Gilbert and Walter Goldsmith were well established under the name Gilbert and Goldie by 1893, at which time New York's Music & Drama journal praised the team for being "exceedingly funny." In another review, a critic singled out for praise their "famous racehorse song." The pair performed to acclaim at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theatre in 1898. The Capital said of their performance, "Gilbert and Goldie's names are too well known here to need any comment save their simple announcement. They come with a stock of new jokes, songs, dances, etc., destined to set the house in a roar."
The duo had their greatest success playing honky tonks in San Francisco. One local paper, South of Market Journal, called them "San Francisco's favorite sons." Years later, a Variety critic remembered Gilbert and Goldie being "among the big ones" at the leading Frisco honky tonk, The Belle. The comedians excelled performing the more risqué humor that the honky tonk audiences demanded.
Gilbert died in 1903. Goldie went into the soap business for awhile and tried unsuccessfully to return to vaudeville with a solo act in 1912.
Tom Morrissey and Ann Rich, who were featured at Keith's Union Square Theatre in 1898, continued to work together for at least the next fifteen years. Then, they quietly disappeared. In 1926, a Variety columnist wrote of the team, "Some years ago, Morrissey and Rich were among the leading teams of vaudeville, topping bills in many theatres. They separated and the theatre know of them no more. I have just received the news that Tom Morrissey owns a shoe-repair business in Los Angeles while Ann Rich is running a beauty salon with 15 operatives and has been extremely fortunate in real estate."
A husband-and-wife team, Joseph Hart and Carrie DeMar, were seen at the time in a new sketch called "Dr. Chauncey's Visit." The couple met in 1891 and married two years later. Hart later wrote and produced several shows as vehicles for himself and his wife. His shows included "The Gay Old Boy" (1894–1895), "Foxy Grandpa" (an adaptation of the Carl E. Schultze comic strip, 1901–1905) and "Girls Will Be Girls" (1903–1904). He also starred in the touring company of C. T. Dazey's "A Tarrytown Widow" (1897–1898). The couple reprised their "Foxy Grandpa" roles in two short films, The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa and Foxy Grandpa and Polly in a Little Hilarity.
On October 3, 1921, Hart was at his Manhattan home with his wife when he died suddenly from a stroke. DeMar became reclusive after her husband's death. Later in life, she joined the Catholic order.
Elizabeth Allen "Daisy" Remington and William B. Hines were a married couple that had been performing together since 1879. Remington wrote a number of successful playlets, sketches and short stories under the pen name "Earle Remington-Hines." The duo retired their act in 1912. Hines died on December 14, 1917. Remington died on September 23, 1923.
William Swan and Frank E. Bambard combined comedy and acrobatics. Their act was best represented by the following review: "Swan and Bambard gave their knockabout acrobatics, with the good comedy of the stout man [Bambard] and the excellent acrobatics of the other [Swan]. His head spring for the close brought a big round of applause, and the team generally fared well." (Variety, February 16, 1907). The men dissolved their act in 1915. Bambard died at his home in October, 1917.
Hector and Lauraine, eccentric knockout comedians, were billed as "The World's Whirligigs" and "Wonderful Whirligigs." The duo became familiar on the vaudeville circuits for a nutty act called "Boxing Upside Down," in which the athletic funnymen literally boxed upside down.
Between 1896 and 1899, Hector and Lauraine were regulars at the Empire Theatre in Cardiff, Wales. The Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman's News reported: "Hector and Lauraine, the comic acrobats, created the utmost laughter." The South Wales Daily News noted, "Hector and Lauraine were excruciatingly funny."
|Charlie Johnson and Dora Dean|
Charlie Johnson and Dora Dean were listed in the New York Dramatic Mirror as "a colored comedy duo," but the team was better known for their dance routines. In 1891, Johnson and Dean met while working together in Sam T. Jack's Creole Company, a popular touring company that combined elements of the minstrel show and the burlesque show. In the burlesque tradition, Jack used many pretty female singers and dancers in key roles. Most of the performers in the company had extensive experience in minstrel shows and they retained much of the material that they had established as minstrel entertainers, but the Creole company made it one of its most important innovations to eliminate blackface. This was called playing neat. Dean started out in the show with small roles, including a bit in which she posed as a statue, but Dean's talent as a singer and dancer combined with her beauty and shapely figure made her popular with audiences. Johnson was originally cast as a singer and banjo player, but his exceptional musical abilities eventually led him to becoming the company's leading man.
It was another innovation of the Creole Company to pair up men and women in dance numbers. This enabled Johnson and Dean, the company's two rising stars, to combine their talents. After two years, the dance partners got married and left the Creole Company. They put together an eccentric dance act (known at the time as "legomania") for the Chicago World's Fair. Later, they established themselves on the vaudeville circuit as the King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy. Marshall and Jean Stearns wrote in "Jazz Dance": "The pioneering team of Johnson & Dean was perhaps the first to break ground for class [dance] acts. Johnson & Dean established the roles of the genteel Negro couple on the American stage – the courtly gentleman and the gracious lady." They became famous for introducing a graceful, elegant style of cakewalk to the Broadway stage in 1897. The book "Vaudeville old & new: an encyclopedia of variety performances in America," which was written by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly, includes the following passage on Johnson and Dean's reworking of the cakewalk:
The chalk line walk, a contest of skill among African Americans, was a holdover from slavery days. It was a high-stepping dance, with turns and reversals, performed while balancing a bucket of water on the head and following a line delineated by chalk. Johnson did away with the bucket of water but retained the precision and the high style.Johnson and Dean achieved great success touring European countries, including England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia. In 1904, they made a return visit to England to accept top billing at London's prestigious Palace Theatre. A review of their performance at the Palace appeared in The Era.:
They call their dance a kinetoscope rag time dance, which is performed against a black background amid intermittent flashes of light. The ballet-like movements of the clever couple are thus illustrated in a way that give them something of the effect of a cinematograph picture. The audience on Monday evidently were interested in the graceful exhibition of both Miss Dean and Mr. Johnson, who did not lack encouragement, which came from all parts of the house.
|Bert Williams and George Walker|
In tribute to Dean's enduring beauty, George Walker and Bert Williams wrote the song "Dora Dean." The song included the following lyrics:
Say have you ever seen Miss Dora DeanThe couple briefly parted ways in 1912 and again in 1922. During their break in 1922, Johnson did a pantomime fishing act with "Cry Baby" Godfrey, who was billed jokingly as "The Black Caruso." The couple had yet another split a few years later. They reunited one last time for a highly publicized comeback performance at Connie's Inn in 1936.
She is the finest girl you have ever seen.
I'm a-goin' to try and make this girl my queen
Next Sunday morning I'm goin' to marry Dora Dean.
Whenever a new or expanded newspaper archive becomes available online, I cannot resist doing a search on my comedy hero Lloyd Hamilton. I have a few newspaper items on Hamilton to share today.
Hamilton first attained prominence with the Elleford dramatic company. A critic with the Lompoc Journal expressed unadulterated praise after attending a presentation by the company in January of 1910. He wrote, "Tonight the Elleford Dramatic company close the most successful week’s engagement that has ever been played in this city in point of attendance and the generous patronage accorded them but attests to the popularity of this meritorious troupe. It is not stretching the statement to say that the players have afforded genuine pleasure throughout the entire engagement and we believe the company has been well pleased with its Lompoc audiences, which proves that Lompoc knows a good thing when it sees it." The critic singled out Hamilton for commendation. He noted, "Lloyd Hamilton was served up in many styles and we hardly know in which particular binding we liked him best. He ran the gamut from the grave to the ludicrous and his makeups ranged from the unsophisticated kid to the scheming and repugnant countenance of a pettifogging lawyer. He is truly a versatile funmaker and a man of many faces and voices." Lloyd's good friend (and later film director) Lloyd Bacon received a mention for being "conscientious" in his performance as a straight lead. A more veteran actor in the company, George Hernandez, also got a share of the laughs. The critic wrote, "George Hernandez is a finished performer and a comedian lead character impersonator of rare ability, much of the success of each performance being due to his infectious fun and personality." It was only within months after this performance that Hernandez left the Elleford company to become a film actor. As a film actor, the accomplished thespian took on a wide variety of character roles, playing everything from a tramp to a judge.
Here is an interesting story from the Nevada State Journal. The date of the story is August 16, 1909.
Last night Lloyd Hamilton, an actor now in the Elleford's company, reported the loss of a suit of clothes and a pair of full-dress trousers from his dressing room at the Wheelman.Hamilton was known to be fastidious about his wardrobe. I am sure that he was not pleased to have his outfit stolen. Hamilton went on to lose his pants repeatedly in his films. In comedy films, the best solution to a lack of trousers was to hurry home under the cover of a barrel.
Hamilton joined the Elleford last Monday and left in his dressing-room a light brown or tan suit of clothes of the late style, practically new, and a pair of full-dress trousers with wide braid on the seams at the side.
Last night Hamilton found that the clothes had been taken, and he reported the loss to the police.
Hamilton devoted much of his spare time to hunting and fishing. This became a subject for many news items on the comedian. In 1918, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Hamilton had been stalking around in the woods when he was attacked by a rattlesnake. Here is another news story that appeared in the Los Angeles Herald the following year.
Los Angeles Herald, July 19, 1919It's not the salacious type of content that would draw the interest of TMZ or Gawker today.
LLOYD HAMILTON GETS SHARE OF MACKEREL
Lloyd Hamilton, one of the leading laugh-makers in Henry Lehrman Comedies, reports fine fishing at Playa Del Rey this week, with mackerel plentiful. He caught 57 from the pier on Wednesday morning, and only stopped because he got tired of pulling them in.
Hamilton didn't only socialize with mackerel and rattlesnake, which is demonstrated by our next item. On January 9, 1917, the Los Angeles Herald reported on a wild Hollywood party in an article titled "Nothing Left But Cheer and Debris." According to the article, comedian Hank Mann entertained friends with "lavish hospitality" for a New Year's Eve celebration at his home. The article began, "Hank Mann, the Fox film comedy star, has cleared away the wreckage from the good ship New Year, which was launched at mid-night." Among his guests were several members of the comedy community, including Charley Chase, Harry Edwards, Alice Howell, Fred Fishback, and our very own Lloyd Hamilton.
Hamilton also liked to commune with the ladies. Steve Zalusky recently posted this article to Facebook.
Los Angeles Herald, August 9, 1920I recently spoke to Ethel Teare's granddaughter. She said that, according to "family legend," Hamilton dated her grandmother for awhile and the two of them made plans to marry.
SEEKS $25,000; LOVE SLANDER ALLEGED
Actress Complains She Was Accused of ‘Breaking Up Home’
Alleging she was wrongfully accused of stealing another woman's husband and that her character was assailed, Miss Ethel Teare, widely known as a screen portrayer of comedy parts, will seek $25,000 damages for alleged slander from Mrs. Ethel Hamilton through a suit which was on file today in the superior court. Mrs. Hamilton's husband, Lloyd Hamilton, was made a nominal defendant in the action, which was filed through Attorney Sol A. Rehart. The complaint recited that the alleged slanderous remarks attributed to Mrs. Hamilton were made in Santa Monica July 25 of this year. At that time, Mrs. Hamilton was alleged to have referred to Miss Teare as follows: "Doctor, I came to tell you about this woman sitting alongside of you in a green hat; she went into my home and took my husband from me." Miss Teare also alleged in her complaint that Mrs. Hamilton said, "You broke up my home," and "You are the kind of woman that will not go out with single men, but go out with married men and break up their homes." Miss Teare asserted the alleged remarks were uttered in malice and were without foundation.
|Lloyd Hamilton and Ethel Teare in A Tight Squeeze (1918)|
My recent archive search on Hamilton has turned up extensive information on Hamilton's family history, which I will cover in my next article.
|Lloyd Hamilton in The Educator (1922)|
The family's story in America began with Hamilton's 4 x great grandfather, William Hamilton. William, the son of Galatin Hamilton and Jane Lauder, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 7, 1647. He immigrated to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1668. He later settled in North Kingston, Rhode Island, where he married Mercy Beere and had ten children (seven sons and three daughters). Due to failing health, he moved into the residence of a daughter and her husband, Thomas Benedict, in May, 1749. He was said to have died "easy in his chair" at the age of 102.
William was the subject of an extravagant tale that has remained prominent in various histories of Cape Cod. The story later received mention in the New York Times (October 8, 1894), Alexander Starbuck's "History of the American Whale Fishery from its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876" (1878), and Duncan Oliver and John Braginton-Smith's "Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America's First Whalemen" (2008). It was alleged in the story that William was the first man to kill a whale in Cape Cod waters. William was alone at the seashore when he noticed a whale in the ocean. He quickly rowed his boat out to the great beast, killed it with a harpoon, and dragged its carcass back to shore. The State Journal reported, "The act was so unusual and daring that he was looked upon as a wizard, came near to being hung, and was taken up and confined in jail. . ." William reportedly met other people arrested for suspicion of witchery and led the group into mounting a jail break. The State Journal continued, "[They] marched through the town and informed the magistrates that if there was any more persons arrested for witchcraft they (the magistrates) would be hung."
Most other versions of the story leave out William's arrest and jail break. These stories simply asserted that William's killing of the whale was attributed to, in Starbuck's words, "undue familiarity with evil spirits." Historian Gertrude Wickham noted that William's family resettled in Rhode Island only after being "driven away as witches." Starbuck, who found no verification of the incident in court records, doubted if the story of the Hamilton family's persecution was true. He believed that Cape Cod residents were familiar enough with fishing skills to understand that killing a whale was nothing supernatural. Besides, Starbuck claimed, "[T]he Cape was more an asylum for the persecuted than the source of persecution." The fact that William's whale-slaying has been carried down in history books for more than 300 years suggests that something of the truth is present in the story.
Lloyd Hamilton demonstrated his own troublesome whale-slaying skills on the big screen. In Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921), Lloyd is taking a stroll on the deck of an ocean liner when he spots what he believes to be a whale in the water below. He grabs a harpoon and launches it in the direction of the assumed creature, which turns out to be a floating mine. The explosion that results is great enough to tear a hole in the hull of the liner and cause the ship to quickly sink beneath the waves. Obviously, this act wasn't as daring or supernatural as it was dumb. No footage or images of the scene are known to exist, but we do have a reworking of the scene performed by Three Stooges in Back from the Front (1943).
One of William's grandsons, Silas Hamilton, was also the subject of a historical legend. The Revolutionary War was at the time causing death and destruction throughout the Colonies. Silas, a resident of Danbury, Connecticut, was on horseback transporting a roll of red flannel cloth that he had obtained from a fuller shop when the British army arrived to burn down the town. Silas was riled into action upon his confrontation with British forces. The story, as detailed in "Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut," continued as follows: "Remounting his horse he flew up Main Street with the troopers in full pursuits, and steadily gaining ground on him; one in advance and close upon him swung his sword to cut him down, when a singular but most fortunate accident occurred. Silas lost a part of his hold upon the roll of cloth, and it flew out like a giant ribbon, frightened the pursuing animals so that he escaped with his life - and cloth!" Silas' unusual escape comes across as a scene out of a Hamilton comedy.
The next descendant in Hamilton's family line was Hamilton's great great great grandfather, David Hamilton, who was born in 1697. David married Anna Wright on September 3, 1727 in North Kingston, Rhode Island. The marriage produced nine children (four daughters and five sons). David worked as a deputy sheriff at one time, but he had much greater success later as a land speculator. David remarried after Anna died in 1745. His second wife, Sarah West, gave birth to two daughters, one in 1746 and the other in 1748, but both died in infancy. David died in May, 1781, in Sharon, Connecticut.
Hamilton's great great grandfather, John I. Hamilton, was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1732. John fought in the Revolutionary War. He was at first stationed in an outpost in Schoharie, New York, and later was stationed at Fort Edward. He married Mercy Cornish. The union of John and Mercy bore eight children (3 daughters and 5 sons). John died at 85 years old in Montgomery County, New York, in 1809.
Hamilton's great grandfather was a physician, Dr. Silas Hamilton. This was a different man than the red cloth runner. Silas was born at Stockbridge, Massachusetts on March 18, 1762. He joined the army of the Revolution when he was fourteen years old, fighting with various regiments from 1776 to 1780. He was stationed in the garrison at Ticonderoga, New York, under the command of General Anthony Wayne. In July, 1777, he volunteered to join the militia company of Captain Amariah Babbitt, which led to him serving for one month in Colonel Seth Warner's regiment. On August 15, 1777, he was one of the militiamen led by Warner into the Battle of Bennington.
The Battle of Bennington was a key battle of the war and Warner's men played a pivotal role in its outcome. British General John Burgoyne figured to gain control of the Hudson River Valley by capturing Albany. The following was reported by Wikipedia:
Burgoyne's progress towards Albany had initially met with great success, including the scattering of Warner's men in the Battle of Hubbardton. However, his advance had slowed to a crawl by late July, due to logistical difficulties, exacerbated by the American destruction of a key road, and the army's supplies began to dwindle.Burgoyne sent a detachment of Indians, Loyalists and German dragoons led by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum to raid Bennington for horses and supplies. Baum believed that the town was only lightly defended, but the fact was that General John Stark had arrived in Bennington with 1,500 militiamen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Stark's men set out in a heavy rain to cut off Baum.
[Baum's] position was immediately surrounded by gunfire, which Stark described as "the hottest engagement I have ever witnessed. . ." The Loyalists and Indian positions were overrun, causing many of them to flee or surrender. This left Baum and his Brunswick dragoons trapped alone on the high ground. The Germans fought valiantly even after running low on powder and the destruction of their ammunition wagon. In desperation the dragoons led a sabre charge in an attempt to break through the enveloping forces. The charge failed horrendously, causing massive amounts of German casualties and gaining no ground on the rebels. Baum was mortally wounded in this final charge, and the remaining Germans surrendered.Wikipedia concluded, "The battle was a decisive victory for the rebel cause, as it reduced Burgoyne's army in size by almost 1,000 men, led his Indian support to largely abandon him, and deprived him of needed supplies such as cavalry and draft horses and food, all factors that contributed to Burgoyne's eventual surrender at Saratoga. The victory also galvanized colonial support for the independence movement, and played a key role in bringing France into the war on the rebel side."
After the battle ended, while Stark's militiamen were busy disarming the prisoners and looting their supplies, Breymann arrived with his reinforcements. Seeing the Americans in disarray, they immediately pressed their attack. After hastily regrouping, Stark's forces tried to hold their ground against the new German onslaught, but began to fall back. Before their lines collapsed, Warner's men arrived on the scene to reinforce Stark's troops. Pitched battle continued until dark, when both sides disengaged. Breymann began a hasty retreat; he had lost one quarter of his force and all of his artillery pieces.
Silas married Achsah M. Barnes on June 20, 1793. The couple brought forth thirteen children (6 daughters and 7 sons). Silas was granted a soldier's pension on January 24, 1833, in the town of Victory, New York. He died on February 6, 1847, at the age of 85.
Hamilton's great aunt, Roxana, married an engraver and publisher, John Farmer. In 1821, Michigan Governor Cass invited Farmer to move from Albany to Detroit to take charge of the University of Michigan. His son, Silas Farmer, wrote:
Within two or three years after his arrival at Detroit, Mr. Farmer was engaged in surveying and preparing hand-made maps of the territory. . . He subsequently published, under various titles, twelve different maps of Michigan, Lake Superior, and Detroit, most of them being engraved by his own hand, and all who are acquainted with his works concede that they have never been excelled, and rarely if ever equaled in accuracy and completeness. . . In 1831 he compiled and drew for the Governor and Judges the first and only map transmitted by them to Congress, and that map is to this day the only legal authority and guide as to the surveys in the older portions of the city. It was accepted by Congress as authoritative and is reproduced in Volume V of the American State Papers, Public Land Series. In January, 1835, he issued the first published map of the city, which showed the size and correct outlines of the several lots.Farmer provided even more service to the state of Michigan. He was the City Treasurer of Detroit. He founded the first Methodist Episcopal Church of Detroit. His son wrote, "He was an early advocate of the abolition of slavery, and would have sympathized with any and every effort made by the slaves to secure their freedom."
His early maps of the Territory and State were sold by the thousands in all the leading eastern cities, and are conceded to have been greatly influential in promoting the extensive immigration to Michigan between the years 1825 and 1840. In 1830, at Albany, New York, he issued the first Gazetteer of Michigan, a work relatively as complete as any gazetteer since issued. He served repeatedly as District, City, and County Surveyor, and laid out many of the earlier roads and villages.
Hamilton's grandfather, Theron Hamilton, was born at Half Moon, New York, on July 26, 1807. On September 13, 1831, Theron married Betsy McCollum, a resident of Cato, New York, on June 28, 1807. In 1840, the couple moved from Port Byron, New York, to Burlington, Michigan. In January, 1865, Theron moved his family to Marshall, Michigan, to accept the duties of Probate Judge for the county. On November 19, 1875, the State Journal reported that Judge Hamilton died at his farm near Jefferson City and was buried in the "neighborhood burying grounds." He was survived by his wife, two sons and an adopted daughter.
Hamilton's father, William Crane Hamilton, was born on February 16, 1846. He married Hamilton's mother, Mary Edith McEntee, on September 23, 1875. Mary was the daughter of Thomas Milton McEntee and Mary Jane Chaple. Thomas was the City Attorney of Detroit from 1860 to 1863. Thomas' brother, William Hervey McEntee, was also an attorney. Hamilton got to poke fun at the lawyers in his family when he played an inept legal counselor in The Adviser (1921).
|Lloyd Hamilton's mother, Mary Edith McEntee|
Additional notes: Going back further
The Hamilton clan descended from a Scottish nobleman, Walter fitz Gilbert of Hambledon. This is where the man lived, Bothwell Castle.
The town of Hamilton, which is near Glasgow, was founded by the Hamilton family and named after them. The name derives from the Old English word hamel "crooked" + dun "hill."
I came across an interesting story about Hamilton's father, William. William, who owned a real estate business, had a long-simmering business dispute with Hugh Craig, the mayor of Piedmont. The dispute came to a head at William's offices at the Realty Syndicate. The result was the two men coming to blows. The story made it into the next edition of the Oakland Tribune under the title "Aged Men in Bloody Fight." The paper reported, "[G]lasses were snapped, cravats were torn and blood bespattered before the final blow had been put over." William was at the time 65 years old (although the paper listed him as 60 years old) and Craig was 70 years old. It was noted in the story, "Craig would not admit that there was a battle, and neither would Hamilton, but the latter finally admitted that there had been something doing and that he had come out on top."
You can read more about Lloyd Hamilton in my book Lloyd Hamilton: Poor Boy of Silent Cinema.
|Henry Lee as Shakespeare|
Lee had a long and illustrious career. His career began in 1876, at which time a 16-year-old Lee made his debut at Wood's Museum in New York. Theatre historian Robert Grau wrote, "[H]ere he played two performances daily, interpreting a different role every week, and often a half dozen widely different characters in the same period."
Following his apprenticeship at Wood's Museum, he appeared as Guildenstern in "Hamlet" at New York's Lyceum Theatre. This was the first of several brushes that the actor had with The Melancholy Dane.
Lee moved around a lot during this period. In 1877, he became a member of the stock company of McVicker's Theatre in Chicago. In 1878, he moved to Philadelphia to become a member of Chestnut Street Theatre Company. Lee got to star in "Hamlet" while at the Chestnut.
In 1879, Lee acted in the stock company of Wallack's Theatre in New York City. He made his first appearance at Wallack's in "Spellbound" on February 24, 1879. He went on to appear in the company's "Miss Gwilt" (June 5, 1879) and "Woolfert's Roost, or a Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (August 18, 1879).
In 1883, legendary theatrical producer Charles Frohman cast Lee in the lead role of a 7-act crime melodrama, "The Stranglers of Paris." Grau wrote, "It was in 'The Stranglers of Paris' that Lee first scored to an extent that stellar honors were accorded to him." Issac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman wrote (in "Charles Frohman: Manager and Man"), "'The Stranglers of Paris' made quite a sensation. The scenic effects were highly praised, and especially the ship scene, which showed convicts in their cages, their revolt, the sinking of the vessel, Jason's struggle in the water, his escape from death, and his dramatic appeal to Heaven."
Lee became in demand for dashing leading man roles. In March, 1884, he played leading man to acclaimed actress Sara Jewett in "That Man" at the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco. In November, 1884, he played leading man to acclaimed actress Fanny Davenport in the Haverly's Theatre production of "Fedora."
Lee co-wrote the play "Angela," which premiered on October 18, 1887, at the Madison Square Theatre.
In the Spring of 1888, Lee had a successful run in "Mystery of a Hansom Cab" at the Academy Theatre in New York.
Lee procured the rights to "The Cavalier" in April, 1888. He premiered the play at The People's Theatre in New York City on June 8, 1888, and traveled with the play through major cities of the country. As of April 15, 1889, the play began a successful run at McVicker's Theatre in Chicago. Not everyone was entirely won over by his performance. This became evident when the play took up residence at San Francisco's Alcazar Theatre on June 16, 1889. The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say: "[Lee] is an actor of no deep dramatic power; he has a good voice and reads sometimes with great effect. But he is staged and throughout theatrical. His enunciation is not distinct and his declamation faulty. Still his theatrical manner is well adapted to some of the strong scenes of the play. . ."
Lee starred in two plays in 1890. He appeared in "The Suspect" at Lyon & Healy's Theatre in Chicago and "The Blue Officer" at the Madison Square Theatre.
A new development to Lee's London botch arrived in the press on August 2, 1891, at which time the Louisville newspaper the Courier-Journal rehashed the story without the slightest bit of subtly or compassion: "[Lee] has just made a disastrous failure of the production of 'Monte Cristo' and 'The Henrietta.'" Now, the newspaper reported, the situation was made more scandalous by the fact that Lee's new bride had sued the actor for pawning her jewelry to pay off his creditors.
Lee remained busy during this period, traveling to New York, Boston and Philadelphia in Walter Sanford's emotionally charged drama "My Jack."
On February 21, 1892, Lee debuted as a blind painter in "The Runaway Wife" at Crawford's Theatre in Kansas City. This was yet another attempt of Lee to become a theatre impresario. Lee had paid for the rights of the play from playwright McKee Rankin (great grandfather of stop-motion king Arthur Rankin Jr.).
After completing the run of "The Runaway Wife," Lee looked to star in a play about Aaron Burr, but he was never able to find financing for the project. Instead, he turned up in a German comedy drama called "Fatherland" at The Union Square Theater.
On August 15, 1892, Lee was introduced as a villainous general in the war drama "The White Squadron." Critics were pleased to see him in this new type of role. Lee also garnered good reviews when he opened in "Current Cash" at Niblo's Garden in October, 1892. The Times noted, "[Lee] assumes a number of clever disguises." Lee managed in these recent efforts to establish himself as a versatile character actor.
Lee's next play, "A Gilded Fool," opened at Union Square Theatre on November 7, 1892. Nat Goodwin and Lizzie Hudson Collier played the romantic leads. Lee played Collier's father. The play remained a viable property for years. Fox Film Corporation produced a film version in 1915. The plot had enough romance, tragedy and conflict to appeal to a wide audience. Chauncey Short is unable to earn enough money to pay for treatment for his sick mother. After his mother dies, he inherits five million dollars from an uncle who had been traveling abroad during his mother's illness. Short's bitterness causes him to spend his inheritance extravagantly. Then, he falls in love with a banker's daughter and has to prove to her that he is not truly an idle and self-indulgent fool.
Lee's name did not make it into the press for the next two years. It is understood that, during this time, the actor struck it rich by investing in a mining company in the South African Republic. But money comes and money goes. Lee lost his great wealth in the Jameson Raid in 1885.
Lee was determined to recoup his losses and he understood that he could earn more money if he left the legitimate theatre for vaudeville. He developed a unique vaudeville act, "Great Men, Past and Present," in which he impersonated a variety of famous men. He introduced himself to the audience wearing evening dress. He announced, "I shall endeavor to give you an impersonation of great men past and present. If you do not like them, the fault is either theirs or yours." Grau wrote, "Lee would save up his vaudeville earnings until he had accumulated a few thousand dollars and then he would embark in some enterprise which would permit him to shine as a dramatic star. In this manner he was able to produce Cyrano de Bergerac."
On February, 1895, Lee arrived in Philadelphia with "Cyrano de Bergerac." The Philadelphia Times' dramatic critic (credited only as "Raymond") wrote, "I regard Henry Lee as a great actor, of wonderfully fine qualities and splendid stage sympathies, but I do not think any actor living equal Mansfield. But in this one part Lee can perhaps excel him."
As of May 2, 1897, Lee was back with his "Great Men" act at the Proctor's Fifth Avenue Theatre. Grau wrote, "'Great Men' was [always] revived to keep the wolf from the door." Lee tried to convince vaudeville managers to allow him to perform dramatic playlets, but they were only willing to book him to perform his "Great Men" act. Grau wrote, "[V]audeville managers frowned on his ambitions. . . 'Great Men,' or nothing, was their ultimatum, and it broke Lee's heart."
Still, as it turned out, Lee left vaudeville for Broadway the next year. He was featured in the musical burlesque "Hurly Burly" at Weber and Fields' Broadway Music Hall in 1898 and played Simonides in an 1899 Broadway production of "Ben Hur." He also performed in a Shakespeare company in London.
He must have had to keep the wolves from the door again as he was back with his "Great Men" act in April, 1899. He was briefly able to convince theatre managers to allow him to combine his impersonation act with third-act highlights from "Cyrano de Bergerac."
On March 3, 1900, Lee filed for bankruptcy. It was at this point that he devoted his attention entirely to his "Great Men" act. He was able to expand his performance when theaters booked him as a headline act, enacting fifteen impersonations in thirty minutes. The Los Angeles Herald noted, "Not the least important factor in his hold upon the public's admiration is the wonderful speed and apparent ease with which he is metamorphosed so swiftly from one character to another." By 1903, his act featured impersonations of Otto von Bismarck, Pope Leo XIII, Mark Twain, President Theodore Roosevelt, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General Robert E. Lee.
In time, Lee added many other impersonations to his act. He preferred as his subjects world leaders (Kaiser Wilhelm II and Japanese Emperor Meiji) and business titans (Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockerfeller), but he also found writers to be excellent subjects as he could recite their eloquent literature to the audience. He dressed up as Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Henrik Ibsen. Among his other new subjects were Admiral John Paul Jones and Senator Chauncey M. Depew. A show that he performed in April, 1904, was designed to focus exclusively on "the rulers of the world." This performance included a novel appearance of Lee made up as Czar Nicolas.
Standing nearby was a valet, who Lee introduced to the audience as "John." John helped Lee to quickly don coats, trousers, hats, ties and whiskers in his transformations. The Los Angeles Herald described the dressing and make-up process in meticulous detail. When it was time for the actor to become King Edward VII, he found John waiting offstage with "black mourning trousers and the coat on which are pinned the decorations that are worn by the king." The newspaper further described Lee transforming from King Edward VII to Otto von Bismarck and then from King Edward VII to Pope Leo XIII. Their account went as follows:
Lee is arranging the white wig and white drooping moustache which are needed to complete the "make-up." Then the brows are made a bit heavier, the lines in the face are furrowed, and with a dash of grease paint on the lower lip to make it a bit stronger, Prince Bismarck is ready to walk on in full view of the audience. Immediately behind the great chancellor walks Tyrris, the Great Dane dog that is Mr. Lee's constant companion, and which he uses in his Bismarck act. The dog stands by his master for a few seconds and then makes his exit, Mr. Lee taking up his reading of an extract from one of the Iron Chancellor's great speeches, in which he tells of his standing by the ship of state for so long and now is about to retire. The presentation is true to life and faithful, and shows the great art of mimicry possessed by Mr. Lee. The curtain no sooner reaches the bottom of the stage than Mr. Lee dashes into his dressing room and casts off the Bismarck "make up." He rubs down his eyebrows, removes some of the paint from his cheeks, inserts a wrinkle or two on either cheek and then smiles once or twice in a benign way, while "John" is assisting him to get into the long white cassock that is worn only by a pope. The skull cap is donned, the great white ring is inserted on the middle finger of the right hand, and buttoning up the cassock you behold the bent figure of the pope of Rome, majestic in his bearing despite the drooping shoulders, the furrowed countenance and the pale, white face, which denotes great age. Lee's characterization of the pope of Rome is a grand conception, and despite the fact that it takes but ninety seconds for him to transform himself from Bismarck into the pope, the picture is wonderfully made, and there will undoubtedly be crowds of Catholics especially who will go to the Orpheum this week if for no other reason than to see Lee appear made up as the head of the Roman church.The Los Angeles Herald concluded, "Lee's work is of the highest order. He is clever in all of his conceptions, he does not approach the vulgar in any of his caricatures and he displays a mimicry that denotes long training on the stage. The actor who does this high class vaudeville work is a man who has acted with all of the celebrated men and women of the stage for twenty-five years, and although he has changed his stage tactics he is nevertheless put down in stage history as one of the few really great actors of the time."
The reviews of Lee's act were generally enthusiastic. In August, 1904, the New York Clipper reported on the actor's performance at Keith's Theatre. The newspaper said, "Henry Lee, in his masterful impersonations of great men, past and present, holds the head position on the bill, and right worthily, too, as he has no peer in his line of endeavor. Each of his portrayals received hearty approval for their fidelity to the character impersonated." The Philadelphia Times wrote, "[Henry Lee] may be called the human phonograph-biograph, for he is a living picture of the personages represented, and, in addition, furnishes the voice in some well-known speech of the distinguished men who is being represented."
People had a great curiosity to see how Lee changed from one character to another. This inspired him to change his act. In October, 1906, the Courier-Journal of Louisville reported, "Interest is added from the fact that all of his making up is done in full view of the audience."
Brooklyn Daily Eagle expressed enthusiasm in regards to news that Lee had embarked on an international tour with "his famous transformation act." Variety later noted, "[H]e travelled to nearly every civilized country in the world."
Variety columnist J. C. Nugent remembered meeting Lee at the Navarre Hotel in New York City. He was sitting at a table with a distinguished group of actors, including Sam Bernard, Dave Montgomery, Maurice Barrymore, Lew Fields, and Bert Coote. Nugent wrote, "He wore a clerical collar and spoke in the grand manner."
The impersonators of this period were committed to being respectful of their subjects, which was a point that I made in my earlier article. It was far different than today. Consider the recent controversy over Will Ferrell's intention to mock President Ronald Reagan's struggle with Alzheimer's disease in a major studio film. Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis called the project "cruel" and Farrell "heartless."
In his normal course of business, Lee acted neither cruel nor heartless in his portrayal of President Roosevelt. The Omaha Daily Bee described the actor's impersonations as "artistic and pleasant." The New York Times noted, "[Lee] delivers an eloquent and highly praiseworthy sentiment[al] characteristic of each [subject]." In other words, he provided a tender rendering designed to elicit love, pity, or nostalgia. But the protean actor did demonstrate a brief lapse in pleasantness and tenderness when he showed up at the Keith's Theatre in November, 1904. The New York Times observed, "The managerial rule that bars politics from the theatre for fear of hurting partisan feelings is being shattered this week at Keith's, in nothing less than a caricature of the President of these United States." The newspaper said that Lee took to "pounding hard at [Roosevelt's philosophies of] imperialism and strenuosity, to say nothing of various foibles of [his] personal character."
The audience reaction was mixed and, as it turned out, Lee suffered a backlash for his actions. The New York Times concluded with the following defense of the actor: "It is certainly strange and regrettable that a nation as political as our['s] should be intolerant of politics on the stage."
In May, 1908, Variety reported, "Everything is in readiness for the commencement in Chicago Sunday of a unique experiment. George Kleine, the big American importer of foreign independent films, George Lederer and Henry Lee, the impersonator, have entered into a partnership to give a novel moving picture show in the Auditorium, Chicago, the big show house which played 'Advanced Vaudeville' for a time last season." Lee promised theatregoers "a combination of music, poetry, drama and a pictorial display."
More information on project was forthcoming. Lee engaged the services of other impersonators to stage a show called "The Mimic World" at Chicago's 4,000-seat Orpheum Theatre. The show, which was coordinated by dozens of theatre personnel, was a ninety-minute multimedia experience, featuring films, slides, prerecorded sound effects, a choir, and musical accompaniment.
Grau later wrote in "The Theatre of Science,""Lee was an artist to his finger tips, but of business he knew absolutely nothing, and before I could exert my influence to check his wild enthusiasm, he became hopelessly involved financially. . . I advised Lee to preserve his vaudeville status and not sacrifice the $500 a week that was his for the asking to finance a project wholly uncertain as to the outcome. But Lee, the dreamer, was not to be influenced."
Lee became preoccupied with the project. Grau wrote, "At Lee's request, I journeyed to Chicago to witness the production. . . The spectacle of an auditorium of about 300 persons in the vast Chicago auditorium seating 6,000 was alone uninspiring enough to cast a gloom. . ." Journalist Arthur Edwin Krows wrote in 1938, "My recollection is that the primary trouble was too much mixing of the media." Grau wrote, "Unfortunately, [Lee] was a very poor business man. His procedure, as a rule, was decidedly ill advised."
The fact that he was so closely identified with his unique specialty act came to be a handicap for the actor. Grau wrote, "To the writer Lee had always expressed himself as deploring the vogue which this effort brought him. I have been with him when he would send a message to some manager offering to cancel all his vaudeville engagements, which at the time brought him a weekly provision of $500, if he could get one-fifth of this sum to originate some new role on Broadway. But it was not to be. In the last two years the vicissitudes and experiences which Lee had gone through were simply unbearable to a man of his make-up."
It was bad enough that Lee had fallen into a rut, but the audiences at the major vaudeville houses had become bored with his act. Grau wrote, "His position was truly desperate. Finally this fine artist was forced to make a tour of second rate vaudeville theaters at a reduced salary, and this was the last engagement of his long and remarkable career."
A Variety critic saw Lee perform what may have been his last "Great Man" performance at the Plaza Theatre in May, 1909. He wrote, "Henry Lee returns to his original offering, 'Great Men Past and Present,' making only a few changes in his subjects, but keeping the familiar arrangement of the presentation. The new ones are Emperor William II, Hon. Joseph Cannon and Oscar Hammerstein. All three were handled with the rare and skill in make-up that characterizes Mr. Lee's work. Mr. Lee seems to be the only impersonator who realizes the ex-President is not a rough rider any more. He dresses Mr. Roosevelt in civilian riding costume instead of the khaki uniform that has become a stage trade mark of Theodore."
Soon after his Plaza Theatre appearance, Lee introduced a new spectacle at the White City Amusement Park in Chicago. The show, called "The Destruction of Messina," employed dozens of stage hands, electricians and pyrotechnic specialists to create the effect of a volcano destroying a city. The disaster show made use of several effects machines, including a wind machine, a flame machine, sound effects machines and various electric lamps. The big space, big cast and big machines employed by the show had, at the outcome, a big cost. The high costs caused the park to shut down the attraction at the end of the season.
Lee died while undergoing surgery on November 10, 1911. He was 51 years old. Grau wrote, "Henry Lee had a heart so big that the tears would come to his eyes at the mention of distress of a friend. He gave away his money in hard times as readily as in his palmy days. To those who knew him well the struggle Lee made to keep up his outward appearance and to stave off the gradually evident signs of adversity was simply heartrending. He was not without his faults, but from these he alone suffered. With his demise the stage has lost a great actor - far greater than, perhaps, posterity will record."
After his death, counterfeit versions of his act turned up on the vaudeville circuits. Acts billed exactly like Lee's act, "Great Men, Past and Present," were performed by several actors, including Joseph Callahan, Emil Merkle, and The Great Westin.
Grau sadly noted:
The death of Henry Lee was not accorded the prominence in the public press that would have been meted out to him a generation ago. Perhaps this due to the fact that his achievements were little known to modern writers, but for all that the news came as a shock in the circles in which he was once a conspicuous figure. The greatest misfortune that ever befell Lee was the success which he achieved in London in the music halls in the speciality which ever after he was enabled to conjure with. "Great Men, Past and Present" was his undoing. Lee tried hard, too, to regain the place he had made for himself on the legitimate stage, but he was regarded as a vaudevillian, and this is one instance where vaudeville really did retard a career.