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    I enjoyed talking to Derek McLellan for his Dream Factory podcast.  We had a lively conversation about the comedians featured in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I thank Derek for his cordiality and insight.  The podcast can be found here.  

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    Nikki Finke, the editor of, ruffled a few feathers when she protested Julie Bowen scoring an Emmy win for her comedy work on Modern Family.  Finke cut straight to the point when she stated, "Beautiful actresses are not funny."  Comedy, in her view, has to do with "emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you."  I addressed this very subject in an essay called "Beauty and the Pratfall," which is included in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film" (now available on   My belief is that, while beauty does not make it impossible for an actor to be funny, it does make it less likely that an actor can be funny.

    The pain and humiliation of the unfortunate have long been a big part of comedy.  Max Linder delivered to the cinema, in exquisite form, the comedy of embarrassment.  Take a look at this clip from Mon Pantalon Est Décousu (1908).

    I have found myself returning to this simple old routine from Linder again and again.  I wrote about it in "The Funny Parts."  I wrote about it in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."  I wrote about it before on this very blog.  

    Elizabeth Banks, a pretty actress who does a lot of comedy, argued against Finke's remarks on her blog.  She stated emphatically that she has never had a problem being entertained by a pretty woman performing comedy.  She provided as an example Sophia Vergara, whose work she generally finds funny.  She insisted that, whenever the actress is performing, she is never in the slightest bit distressed or distracted by her "gorgeous breasts."  She added that it really made her laugh when, during the Emmy ceremony, Vergara split her dress.  Yes, this really happened.  Photographic evidence is provided below.

    It was a real-life version of Linder's split seam routine.  But being desirable means never having to say you're sorry.  This is evident in Ms. Vergara's reaction to the mishap.  Vergara was not pained.  She was not humiliated.  The bare cheeks of her backside were visible through the split seam and her response was to snap a picture of her backside and tweet it to the nation.  This was the joyful message that accompanied the picture: "Jajajajja.  I luv my life!!!!"  This is far from the distress expressed by Linder.

    Of course, it isn't only an issue of beauty.  It is also a sign of the times.  I made the point in "The Funny Parts" that shame is too often lacking in our modern culture and this has rendered this sort of comic business irrelevant.

    Comedy trades in the shame that a person feels when, in one way or another, they prove to be less than adequate.  Beauty, in all its perfection, does not present inadequacy to the world.  This is Curly Howard in his underwear. 

    This is Elizabeth Banks in her underwear. 

    There is a difference.  Can that really be denied?  It is worth noting that, in the Banks scene, the filmmakers expected to get the biggest laugh from a less fit character's oversized belly.  

    I speak about this at length in "Eighteen Comedians."  I examine the comic stylings of various pretty actresses, including Thelma Todd and Katherine Heigl.  I compare Linder's split seam routine with a similar routine performed by Priscilla Lane in Four Wives (1939).  Can beautiful women, or beautiful people in general, normally be funny?  We report.  You decide.

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  • 10/22/12--14:28: The Swing Game

  • One of Max Linder's early films was a morbid 1906 comedy called Le Pendu, which translates as The Hanged Man. The film begins, as many Linder films begin, with Max in love. Max wants to marry a baron's daughter, but the baron will not consent to his daughter marrying a film actor. Linder made an interesting choice in his series to play a fictitious version of himself. His celebrity as a film actor became a subject for mocking in a number of his films. This is a concept that was later adopted by other comedians, including Jack Benny, Louie C.K. and Larry David. Max may be a film actor known for his sense of humor, but his rejection by the baron does not put him in the mood to be funny. Instead, he goes into the woods and hangs himself from a tree. Max is discovered by a servant gathering truffles. The servant finds a gardener with a scythe and asks for his help in cutting the man down, but the gardener is less than willing. The gardener, according to a Variety critic, "dares not cut the rope without the presence of an officer." He hurries away to bring back a policeman. The policeman is not sure of the official procedure for dealing with a despondent man hanging from the limb of a tree. He leaves the scene to visit the station house and returns with his sergeant. The sergeant in turn consults the police commissioner. Max's father is summoned to the scene, but he refuses to go out in public without first putting on a necktie. The bourgeois man's meticulousness when it comes to properly adjusting his tie shows the same obsession with the social dress code that Linder's character demonstrated so often in his films. Like father, like son. In the meantime, Max is wriggling at the end of the rope with his hands fumbling for support and his tongue bulging out of his mouth. This is dark, dark stuff.

    I was asked by someone if Le Pendu was evidence that Linder had been plagued by suicidal thoughts years before he committed suicide in 1925. I felt compelled to argue against that assumption. To start, Linder was not responsible for the scenario of Le Pendu. The film was in fact a remake of a film written and directed by Alice Guy Blaché for Gaumont. In Blaché's Le Pendu, a husband rebukes his mother-in-law for playing her phonograph too loud. His wife rushes to her mother's defense and the two women run the cranky husband out of his home. The man, despondent, hangs himself from a tree. The man is taken down from the tree and he appears by all evidence to be dead. His wife sobs uncontrollably, which prompts her mother to take action. The woman turns the crank on her phonograph and the music that comes out is able to miraculously rouse the man from his tragic slumber. As pointed out by film historian Alison McMahan, the Gaumont film focuses on the romance of the couple while the Linder film is more concerned with mocking the "institutional bureaucracies" that often incapacitate government officials.

    La Pendu came up during a recent interview with Elio Quiroga, who is producing a documentary on Linder. Quiroga imagined that most people would be shocked today to watch this "awful comedy" of a man hanging himself. But suicide was not a shocking subject at the time. Linder's top rival, André Deed, used the suicide premise on a number of occasions. In 1909 alone, Deed produced three suicide comedies - Boireau n'est pas mort, Le Suicide de Boireau and Cretinetti si vuol suicidare. It was inevitable, though, that Deed's efforts would go nowhere. First, Deed's cartoonish character was as indestructible as Wile E. Coyote. Deed throws himself under the wheels of a speeding car, but he rises up again in the next moment without a scratch. This comic fool was also unlikely to succeed in his suicide attempts out of sheer incompetence. Deed could try to hang himself from a tree, but it wouldn't be long before the tree branch would crack and the comedian would fall to the ground.

    Linder's character is considerably more crafty and more real than Deed's character. Could his suicide efforts so easily be thwarted? In Le Pendu, the tree branch does not break. The film shows Max hanging from a noose for six or seven minutes while people, including a small boy, react with horror and panic. It is understandable that a person seeing the comedian's prolonged death struggles would be disturbed. Bob Lipton, IMDb reviewer who saw the film at a recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit, was certainly unsettled by what he saw. "This," he emphasized, "is the slow, strangling sort of hanging in which the victim expires slowly." The dark humor of this scene was emphasized by the film's German title, Moderne Schaukelpartie, which translates as Modern Swing Game.

    The end of the film, which is important to this discussion, has come into question. I, myself, have never had access to the film and must rely on accounts of other people. McMahan, who carefully examined the film for the purposes of "Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema," understood that Max had expired before he was cut down from the tree. He is only brought back to life due to an outlandish method employed by a doctor who has arrived on the scene. The doctor attaches a bicycle pump to Max's mouth and works the pump to fill his lungs with air. The bicycle pump works as magically as the phonograph in reviving the man from death. The girl's parents, who have been deeply affected by Max's display of emotion, agree to let Max marry their daughter. But a critic with Variety who reviewed the film at the time of its release noticed something else that no other viewer has mentioned. When Max is finally taken down, the critic was able to clearly see a hook attached to his coat, which meant that the jilted suitor was hanging safely from the tree all along. In the end, Max never had any intention of killing himself and his death struggles were nothing more than an act. A Variety critic wrote, "This relieves what would be otherwise a gruesome sight."

    Linder made another suicide comedy in 1910. This time, he wants to marry Catherine, but Catherine's father insists that his daughter marry a banker with substantially more money than Max has. Max, unwilling to go on living, hires a criminal to take his life. Max is waiting for the hitman to arrive when a messenger arrives at his home with an urgent letter. It's good news. According to the letter, Max has inherited a large fortune that will make him more wealthy than his banker rival. The problem, though, is that he must now duck and dodge the hitman so that he can live long enough to share his newfound wealth with his beloved Catherine. The film was released in France as Le Pacte, which refers to the "pacte" or pact that Max comes to arrange with the hitman, but the film was released in the United States under the more general title Max in a Dilemma.

    Linder remade Le Pendu in 1914. In this version, it is made clear beforehand that Max is not really hanging himself. Max can be seen wrapping one end of the rope under his arms so that he can safely hang from the tree. The ruse is made evident by the film's U.K. title, Max's Persuasive Suicide. This is not to say, though, that the film was presented everywhere with a comforting wink to theater patrons. The film was released in Germany under the bleak title Max will sterben, which translates as Max Wants to Die. Possibly, different cultures have different tolerance levels when it comes to doom and gloom.

    The biggest difference between this film and the original is the ending. After cutting Max down from the tree, the police commissioner assures Max that he will visit the girl's father with him and assure the man of Max's serious intentions. He tells Max that the man cannot possibly refuse him this time. Max is filled with optimism when he and the police commissioner confront the father, but the father is not moved in the slightest by the police commissioner's pleas. Max, who has never removed the rope from around his neck, attaches the other end of the rope to a chandelier and hangs himself for real. This ending is, without question, far more grim than the ending of the original film.

    The following clip from Max in a Taxi (1917) shows yet another time when Linder looked to derive humor from failed suicide attempts.

    As you could see, the tree branch did break that time.

    When all is said and done, this comic suicide business is nothing more than a stock routine that continued on for decades. The routine was performed by many different silent film comedians, including Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Larry Semon. The comedian's motives varied at times. In Tweedledum Institutes His Life (1913), Marcel Perez attempts to hang himself, drown himself and blow himself up in order for his wife to collect on a life insurance policy. In Dead Easy (1927), Bobby Vernon goes through various attempts to kill himself as a publicity stunt.

    The pay-off gags varied as well. This is a scene from Haunted Spooks (1920) in which Harold Lloyd attempts to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.

    In Love's Last Laugh (1926), the suicidal man (Raymond McKee) jumps off a bridge only to land safely in the swimming pool of a passing cruise ship. This scene is played with a different twist entirely in Better Off Dead (1985).

    Better Off Dead was an entire feature film about a man trying to kill himself.  There's a scene in which John Cusack tries to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

    And, of course, there's a hanging scene.

    Here are hanging scenes from other comedy films.

    Hard Luck (1921)

    Delicatessen (1991)

    Linder had no patent on the suicide routine and, despite his sad end, it would be wrong to assume his performance of the routine meant that he had long been of a disturbed mind. The many joyful comedies that Linder produced are discussed extensively in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."

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  • 11/15/12--08:26: Up a Wall

  • In 1902, Georges Méliès created a comical little film that showed a dancer running up a wall and performing handsprings in mid-air.  The film, titled The Human Fly, can be viewed below. 

    The film stands today as a forerunner to a number of popular films.

    Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1950)

    Lionel Richie in "Dancing on the Ceiling" music video (1986)

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception (2010)

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  • 11/15/12--09:35: Woodley

  • Australian comedian Frank Woodley has brought his affection for silent film comedy to the fore on his new television series, Woodley.  The series, which involves a newly divorced man trying to cope with the rejection of his wife and maintain a relationship with his young daughter, manages to be both funny and sentimental at the same time.  In the following scene, Woodley gives up on a suicide attempt because he suddenly remembers he is supposed to attend his daughter's musical recital.

    Woodley took many gags directly from classic comedies.  Take a look at this gag performed by Charlie Chaplin in The Idle Class (1921).

    Now, we have the same gag performed by Woodley. 

    Frankly, Woodley's version of the scene pales in comparison to the original.  Chaplin wickedly upended expectations to expose the callousness of his character, a pampered fool with no regard for his wife's dire concerns over his drinking.  This gag does not work as well with Woodley as his character is truly broken up by his wife's departure.  However, Woodley does well with most of the other gags.  Here is Harold Lloyd in Bumping into Broadway (1919).

    Woodley repeats this gag when he and his daughter Ollie (Alexandra Cashmere) have to sneak into a fashion show.

    Larry Semon in A Pair of Kings (1922)


    Harold Lloyd in Number, Please (1920)


    Woodley also introduces gags that are entirely original, including a clever toaster gag that opened the series.

    Even though his routines are largely silent, Woodley often provides sound effects as punctuation to gags.  The toaster scene was no doubt enhanced by the various sound effects, including the squeak of the toaster lever and the roar of the flames.  Key sound effects can also be found in the following scene.  

    The final shot of the scene would not be as funny without the sound of the baby crying or the sound of the nurse cutting through the tape.

    Silent comedy often involved comedians being confused or misled by optical illusions.  Here is a scene in which sounds and images combine to create a misunderstanding.

    Woodley's daughter comes to spend the night at her dad's home, but she can't get to sleep because her mother forgot to pack her favorite stuffed animal.  Woodley, who doesn't realize the mother is home, plans to break into her home to get the doll.  Fate, which so often controlled the quick twists and turns of silent film comedy, intervenes to help out the anxious father.

    The series episodes, much like the comedies of the silent era, often climax with chases or slapstick battles.

    Woodley, like the classic comedians, strives for laughs using such common household objects as ladders and hoses.

    He also makes use of old-fashioned juggling tricks to get laughs.

    In a recent article, I wrote about the torn trouser routine.  Here, Woodley provides yet another variation on this enduring routine.

    It's comforting to see at least one comedian trying to reintroduce the art of physical comedy to the general public.  Films like The Idle Class and Bumping into Broadway currently draw the interest of only a small niche audience, the majority of which is middle-aged or older.  As sad as it is for me to admit this, I doubt that these films will acquire enough new fans in the coming years to remain in the public consciousness.  Director Joe Dante was recently asked if he thought that the old horror classics will continue to have an audience in the next generation.  He was not at all optimistic.  He pointed out that it's hard to get kids today to even consider watching Frankenstein (1931), one of the most important horror classics, just because the film is in black and white.  He believed that, for the purposes of the general public, any film made in 1931 is in all likelihood near the end of its shelf life.  I applaud Woodley's efforts to keep the principles of silent film comedy alive and well in the 21st century.  

    I try my best to keep silent film comedy alive and well with my second interview with Derek McLellan for The Dream Factory Podcast.  Click here to listen.

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  • 02/26/13--11:01: You Got to Have Friends

  • Ever since I wrote The Funny Parts, I have remained fascinated with the free manner in which creative works are often recycled.  Lewis Gilbert's 1971 teen romance film Friends has more than a little in common with Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.  A neglected boy (Sean Bury) runs away with an orphaned girl (Anicée Alvina).  The couple escape together into the wilderness in the hope of creating a life away from the unhappy adult world they inhabit.  As soon as they get settled, the boy and girl strip down to their underwear and experience a sexual awakening.  Eventually, they become separated by police responding to a missing persons report. 

     Friends (1971)

    Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

    Of course, Anderson brought his own unique style to the project.  He invested the story with his patented brand of quirky, deadpan humor and made use of fantastical fairy tale imagery to convey the couple's adventures from a child's perspective. 


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  • 02/26/13--11:25: Birds of a Feather

  • The Gale Storm Show episode "Singapore Fling" (1957) starts out with cruise ship chief, Captain Huxley (Roy Roberts), assigning his cruise director (Gale Storm) to teach his mynah bird to talk.  Storm becomes exasperated when hours of coaching fail to elicit a single word from her feathery charge.  She insists that the captain has given her an impossible task.  "Captain Huxley is off his rocker," she complains.  To her surprise, the mynah bird finally breaks its silence by repeating the phrase.  The bird cries out the phrase again and again, sending Storm into a panic. 

    Storm visits a pet shop to replace the bird.  She is ready to leave the shop with a lookalike mynah bird when the new bird, in mimicry of the captain's bird, suddenly squawks, "Captain Huxley is off his rocker!"  The scene ends with all of the birds in the shop screeching, "Captain Huxley is off his rocker!"

    This story will no doubt sound familiar to fans of the Car 54, Where Are You?, which made use of the same storyline for one of its most memorable episodes.  The Car 54 episode, "I Hate Captain Block!" (1962), starts out with Captain Block (Paul Reed) asking Officer Toody (Joe E. Ross) to take care of his beloved parrot while he is away on vacation.  The captain tells Toody that it has always bothered him that he has never been able to get the parrot to talk.  This gives Toody an idea.  If all goes as planned, he will be able to surprise the captain by teaching the parrot to talk before he returns from his trip.  But the bird fails to pick up on any of the phrases that Toody is trying to teach it until it overhears Toody say, "I hate Captain Block!"

    "Singapore Fling" was written by Larry Rhine and Bill Freedman.  Rhine was a prolific writer in radio and television.  He worked on Mister Ed for four seasons, producing scripts for 52 of the series' 143 episodes.  In addition, he received Emmy nominations during his longtime tenure on The Red Skelton Show (1962 to 1971) and All in the Family (1975 to 1979).  Freedman had little television experience at the time that he worked on "Singapore Fling," but he went on to work as a staff writer on My Favorite Martian and The Brady Bunch.

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    It's great to be back!  My time in the last few months has been occupied with health issues, an ill-fated romance, and professional study.  But now, my friends, it's time to get back to the comedy.

    I just finished reading Hal Erickson's Military Comedy Films.  This is a comprehensive work that provides insightful commentary on a wide variety of military comedies.  My favorite chapter was "Abbott and Costello Meet the Ripoffs," in which Erickson describes the attempts of various studios to mimic the success of Universal's Buck Privates (1941).  I have to admit that I was unaware that Jackie Gleason was cast as a Lou Costello clone in Columbia's Buck Privates variant, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942).

    Of course, I read the book with a special interest in the gags and routines.  The main purpose of the classic military comedies was to lampoon military life, but they also allowed funnymen to reintroduce old stock gags into a new setting.  Take, for example, this gag from Sailor Beware (1952).  Erickson appropriately dubs this the "human sieve" gag.

    The most persistent routine in military comedies was the drill routine.  The routine can be traced to the nineteenth century minstrel shows, in which the black Civil War regiments were a prime target for satire.  A popular routine known as "I'm One of the Black Brigade" (1864) involved black soldiers ineptly making their way through the manual of arms.

    At first, vaudeville comedy was as much centered on Irish stereotypes as minstrel show comedy had been centered on black stereotypes.  It was only a matter of time before vaudeville funnymen would adapt the drill routine into a vehicle for the standard Irish caricatures.  But additional inspiration came along with the rise of ragtag ethnic neighborhood militias in New York City during the 1870s.  John Kendrick wrote in Musical Theater: A History, "These local 'guard' units were little more than uniformed drinking clubs sponsored by local politicians."  After overindulging in the free beer provided by the politicians, the militia units paraded drunkenly through the streets of the Lower East Side in their ill-fitting uniforms.  In 1873, Edward Harrigan & Tony Hart poked fun at these figures of folly in a skit called "The Mulligan Guard," which debuted at Broadway's Theatre Comique.  Jon W. Finson, Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina, noted that much of routine came down to the comedians "trying to make their way through the manual of arms without impaling themselves on bayonet or saber."  The skit was soon expanded into the play The Mulligan Guard Picnic, which became a steadfast hit and went on to spawn four sequels.

    The drill routine was also popular in the English music hall.  An 1877 British pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, featured a comic drill scene.

    Harold Lloyd directed raw army recruits in a comic drill in Luke's Prepardedness Preparations (1916), which may be the first time that the routine was ever recorded on film.  But the routine came to prominence with film audiences when it was performed by Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918).

    The routine showed up fairly regularly after Shoulder Arms.

    Clyde Cook in The Misfit (1924)


    Stan Laurel in Smithy (1924)

    Snub Pollard in The Doughboy (1926) 

    Jack Haley in Salt Water Daffy (1933)

    Laurel and Hardy can be seen performing a variety of bungled military exercises in Beau Hunks (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Flying Deuces (1939) and Great Guns (1941). 

    Here is an exceptionally funny scene from Pack Up Your Troubles.

    Mishap often occurred in drill scenes when the drill sergeant had the soldiers count off.  This is demonstrated in Beau Hunks.

    The Three Stooges put their own unique stamp on the routine in Boobs In Arms (1940).

    The most memorable drill scene was no doubt provided by Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates (1941).

    Marching into the wrong direction.  Tripping over his own belt.  Getting the butt of a rifle slammed down on his foot.  Asking the drill instructor, "Why don't you make up your mind?"  It had all been done before.  But Abbott and Costello were still able to make this material seem fresh.  Costello managed, through his exasperated reactions, to make the routine more relatable than it had ever been before.  Also, he kept the audience on their toes by throwing in the occasional non sequitur ("What time is it?").  Costello was at the peak of his charms at the time and the audience was with him all the way.  But Abbott contributes significantly to the routine as well.  Totally unique is Abbott's forceful and calculated strategy to get Costello moving in the same direction as the other soldiers.  Abbott, who baffled Costello with his many mathematical equations, was the most calculated straight man in movie history.


    After Buck Privates, other comedians paled at their attempts to perform the drill routine.

    Bowery Battalion (1951)

    It's a Grand Life (1953) 

    Cartoon characters even got into the act.  The following clip is from Donald Duck  Donald Gets Drafted (1942).

    Neil Simon, king of wordplay, proved that the conflict between a raw recruit and a drill instructor can be expressed comically without a single pratfall. 

    Biloxi Blues (1988)

    Costello's struggles with a hammock in In the Navy (1941) was another stock military routine.  The routine showed up in many silent comedies, including Miss Jackie of the Navy (1916), Ship Shape (1925), Jolly Tars (1926) and Shore Shy (1926).

    Overall, I enjoyed Military Comedy Films and recommend it to comedy fans.

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    I have had a bunch of half-finished articles sitting on my hard drive for months.  I actually thought at one point that I could get away with posting an unfinished article by giving it a funny title like "I'm So Lazy that I Probably Won't Finish This Article."  But, in the end, I could not restrain my Protestant work ethic (even though I am Roman Catholic).  In any case, it became clear to me that the time had finally come to stop procrastinating and get the articles finished.  I intend to post one article per day for the next 18 days.  Eighteen articles in eighteen days will hopefully persuade you to purchase my latest book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.
    Yes, it is an epic undertaking indeed.  Secrets will be revealed.  Relationships will change.  Lives will be lost.  But, above all else, it's important to me that you enjoy what I have written.

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I have added film clips to two previous articles, "The Wet Paint Routine" and "Masters of the Quick Disguise."

    Now, let us end today with a tribute to the pie fight.  This was originally posted on YouTube by michiganjfrog.

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    It's here!  Steve Rydzewski's long-awaited biography of Ben Turpin has been released for the pleasure and enlightenment of film comedy enthusiasts everywhere.

    The book had me hooked as soon as I got to the first chapter and came upon a 1867 wood engraving of a New Orleans candy shop owned by Turpin's father, Ernest Turpin.  Outside the shop was horse-drawn carriages, men in top hats and frock coats, and ladies in bustles.  The image immediately took me back in time, which is exactly what a book about the past is supposed to do, and it made me trust that Rydzewski (who I personally know as "Steve") did his homework to find every last bit of information available on Turpin's family history.  Without a doubt, the book is a labor of love by Rydzewski, who devoted 40 years to the research of this beloved comedy icon.

    Turpin began his film career as the Essanay Studios' comedy front man in 1907.  He became a familiar face on movie screens before the American public got its first look at other homegrown film comedy pioneers, including John Bunny, Billy Quirk and John Cumpson.  He established himself in the infant film industry and, in the next 22 years, he endured every sharp twist and turn that occurred in the rapid-paced evolution of silent film comedy.

    Turpin played an important role in the development of gags and routines, which is obviously a subject near and dear to my heart.  He took pies in the face and got sprayed by seltzer bottles years before those gags became standard fare.  In A Case of Seltzer (1909), Turpin appears as an inveterate flirt who gets his comeuppance when the women that he has harassed form a tight circle around him and blast away with seltzer bottles.

    I learned from For Art's Sake that Turpin started out playing the sort of highly destructive bumbler that French comedian André Deed had perfected in his films for Pathé Frères.  In The Crazy Barber (1909), Turpin becomes obsessed practicing for a "fastest barber contest."  He moves energetically through town, automatically cutting the hair of every man, woman and dog that dares to cross his path.  As the title character of The Energetic Street Cleaner (1909), Turpin is so intent on giving the street a powerful sweeping that he fails to take notice of the people who get in his way.  He sweeps dirt onto a pair of women, he knocks down a waiter delivering a tray of food, he scatters a traveler's belongings, and he overturns a grocery boy transporting a sack of flour. 

    Turpin had his greatest success at the Mack Sennett studio, where he was transformed into a living cartoon for a series of outrageous farces.  At Sennett, Turpin was never affected by the more sophisticated efforts of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  In 1921, when Chaplin was crying uncontrollably over losing his little boy to child welfare officials, this is what Turpin was doing.

    She Sighed by the Sea (1921) 

    In 1923, when Harold Lloyd was hanging off a department store clock, this is what Turpin was doing.

    Asleep at the Switch (1923)

    In 1926, when Buster Keaton was speeding across Tennessee in his prize locomotive, this is what Turpin was doing.

    The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926)  

    Turpin's Sennett films expertly combined knockabout, lampoonery and surrealism.

    At the peak of his Hollywood stardom in the 1920s, Turpin made a habit of standing in the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue to direct traffic.

    Try to imagine what would happen if Jim Carrey tried that prank nowadays.  He'd be arrested in less than twenty minutes.  TMZ would be on the scene even faster than the police.  The tabloids would get the word out - either Carrey was as much out of his mind as Amanda Bynes or he was as incapable of handling drink as Reese Witherspoon.

    But Hollywood of the 1920s was a carefree and merry place compared to what Hollywood is today, and Turpin's wacky antics on screen and on Santa Monica Boulevard helped to define Hollywood in its infancy.

    All in all, I enjoyed the story of Ben Turpin, appropriately called by the author "the world's greatest cock-eyed mirthmaker."

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  • 06/20/13--08:26: A Stinky Prank

  • A common routine in silent films had a sloppy eater accidentally dropping a sardine into someone's shoe, causing the person to be pursued by cats, or a prankster slipping Limburger cheese into someone's coat pocket, causing the person to go about their day emitting a bad odor.  Typical was When Slippery Slim Bought the Cheese (1915), in which Slim (Victor Potel) happily prepares for a date without realizing that Mustang Pete (Harry Todd) has hidden Limburger cheese in his pocket.  I was recently able to find a precedent for these routines that dates back to 1882.  A comedy sketch, which was part of a Broadway play called Squatter Sovereignty, dealt with an Irish immigrant who is unaware he has had a fish tied to his back as an April Fool's prank. 

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    According to Twentieth Century Fox publicists, a highlight of the upcoming comedy The Heat (2013) is a drunk scene performed by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  Here is a snippet that appears in the trailer. 

    It is considered politically incorrect today to make fun of alcoholics.  By modern standards, a funny drunk scene is only acceptable if it's made clear that the drunk character doesn't have a chronic problem with alcohol.  The character may drink excessively to cope with a dismal event, maybe a breakup or a job loss, or they may overindulge in drink while celebrating a special occasion like a birthday or a wedding.  The clear implication is that these "drowning sorrows" or "cutting loose" episodes are not part of the character's daily routine.  Bullock and McCarthy get drunk to vent frustrations and bond with one another.

    At one time, Hollywood studios valued comic actors who could act habitually drunk on screen.  These actors played characters who didn't need a special occasion or a personal set-back to drink.  Having to live on this planet was reason enough to down a few shots.  My all-time favorite movie drunk is Arthur Housmen, who made his debut as screen souse extraordinaire in Harold Lloyd's Feet First (1930).  The actor continued to appear as drunks up until his last film, Public Enemies (1941), which was shot just months before his death.  

    Arthur Housmen in Gridiron Flash (1934) 

    Arthur Housmen in Scram (1932)

    Housman's top rival was natty Jack Norton.  Norton played a drunk in his first feature film, Finishing School (1934), and appeared as a drunk in his last public appearance on "The Jackie Gleason Show" in 1955.  That's 21 years of slurred words and fumbled steps from Norton.  If they ever create a Movie Drunk Hall of Fame, I will nominate this great old comic actor for a longevity award.  They could call the award the Lifetime * hiccup* Achievement Award.

    Jack Norton in The Bank Dick (1940)

    The funny drunk was phased out in the 1970s.  The last of the funny drunks were Dick Wilson and Jack Perkins.

    Dick Wilson on Bewitched ("A Bunny For Tabitha," 1969)

    Dick Wilson on Alice ("The Fourth Time Around," 1976)

    Jack Perkins on The Odd Couple ("Felix The Calypso Singer," 1971)

    Jack Perkins on All in the Family ("Archie Is Worried About His Job," 1971)

    Attitudes changed in the 1980s and 1990s.  British comedian Willie Ross now conveyed a disturbing darkness in his frequent portrayals of drunks.

    Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1987)

    One Foot In The Grave ("The Return Of The Speckled Band," 1990)

    Our Friends in the North (1996)

    Our Mutual Friend (1998)  

    Allan Fish paid tribute to Ross on the blog Wonders in the Dark.  Fish wrote, "Sadly, in 2000, life imitated art, as it is wont to do.  [Ross] was killed in a fall down his stairs at home.  Drunk, naturally."

    It may be due to political correctness that The Heat scene is never called a "drunk scene" in interviews and promotional releases.  It is consistently referred to as "the bar scene," as if the setting is more significant than the behavior.

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    I wrote in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film about Larry Semon's obsession with squirting critters. I recently discovered two more instances in which these wildlife anomalies turned up in a Semon film.

    Frank Alexander vs. a baby alligator in School Days (1920)

    Larry Semon vs. a woodpecker in A Simple Sap (1928)

    What is woodpecker spew made of exactly?

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  • 06/23/13--09:47: Lame Brains and Lunatics

  • Steve Massa's Lame Brains and Lunatics, which brings to light an assortment of talented, hardworking and groundbreaking film comedians that long ago vanished into the mists of time, is sure to deliver readers into the deepest depths of film comedy history.  The mist-clearing is handled well by Massa, who has devoted 45 years to the study of silent film comedy.  A lame brain will fail to see the value in the excellent chapters on Billie Ritchie, Marcel Perez, Lige Conley, and others too numerous to mention.  A lunatic will be unable to appreciate the exhaustive research that went into the selected filmographies.  But everyone else will, without a doubt, enjoy the book.

    Lame Brains and Lunatics is rich in biographical detail.  Massa writes about these performers with great knowledge and sensitivity.  He has a particular soft spot for the ladies, which is evident in his chapters on Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Marie Dressler and Fay Tincher.

    I am a big believer in drawing attention to lesser known film comedians, but you know that Massa is the ultimate champion of the underdog when you see that his book includes a chapter on cross-eyed comedian George Rowe.  Rowe worked from 1919 to 1925 at the Hal Roach studio, where he turned up as a supporting player in various series.  The frequent appearances that he made to assist Roach's comic leads, including Snub Pollard, Stan Laurel, Eddie Boland and Paul Parrott, were almost guaranteed to get a laugh.  Realize that, in the silent film comedy hierarchy, Rowe ranks below Eddie Boland.  "Eddie, who?" you ask.  Exactly. 

    It is hard, when taking into the consideration the many comedians that populated silent films, to work out a proper hierarchy.  Where, for example, do you fit Jack Cooper or Sid Smith?  Let's use Smith as an example.  Smith was consistently featured in lead roles in short comedies from the time he entered the film industry in 1913 to his death of alcohol poisoning in 1928.  The diminutive comedian with the pencil-thin moustache was trusted to head up ably crafted campaigns of comic mayhem by most of the major producers, including Mack Sennett, Jack White and Al Christie.  The comedian's greatest success came starring in the "Hall Room Boys" for Harry Cohn from 1919 to 1923.  But Smith is barely remembered today and, frankly, I could not make a case that he deserves to be rediscovered.  I admit that I have been able to see little of his work, but what I have seen has left me cold.  But Massa offers such passionate and eloquent accolades in reference to Smith that I am compelled to rethink my evaluation.  Massa is the James Herriot of silent film comedy.  He has an undying appreciation of all comedians great and small.

    Massa has a special talent for describing the grotesque figures that populated silent film comedy.  I like, for instance, when he describes Rowe as being "made up of odd mismatching parts" and proceeds to catalog a rich assortment of freakish traits.  It makes it clear that the funny, heavily made-up characters that showed up in many silent comedies were as weird and wonderful as something out of a carnival sideshow. 

    Massa has gained extraordinary access to archive prints and research materials.  I am envious that Massa has had the opportunity to see a number of Marcel Perez's US releases, including You're Next (1919) and Sweet Daddy (1921).  I have seen Perez's A Busy Night (1916), which is extraordinary.

    I have never seen a review of a film book in which the photos were specifically reviewed, but I was captivated by the many rare photos in this book.  Sometimes, nothing can make a point better than an illustration.  Many have recognized the influence that Harry Langdon had on Stan Laurel, but this will become more apparent if you turn to page 336 and take a look at a still of a hesitant, white-faced Laurel from A Manadrin Mix-up (1924).  You might have heard that the 1925 pairing of Oliver Hardy and Bobby Ray anticipated Hardy's epic partnership with Laurel.  Turn to page 256 and see a Laurel & Hardy-style image from Hardy and Ray's Hey, Taxi (1925), which resolves any possible dispute on the matter. 

    Okay, fine, I have said enough.  Buy it!

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  • 06/24/13--08:43: Now Playing: Adultery!

  • As hard as it might be to believe, a silent film melodrama once used a silly plot twist that would later become crucial to Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933).  In Louis Feuillade's Tragic Error (1913), a husband goes to the movies one afternoon and sees his wife on screen in the arms of another man. 


    By this time, the plot had already been used in a Biograph comedy.  Certainly, the idea of an untrue spouse being exposed in footage exhibited at the local theatre is good for a laugh.   It is hard to believe that a filmmaker as reputable as Feuillade thought that theatergoers would take this type of plot seriously.  It is no surprise, then, that the plot would be returned to the comedy makers, who would make use of it extensively for the next several decades.  

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  • 06/25/13--09:05: The Incredible Inedibles

  • A memorable scene in Saps at Sea (1940) features Laurel and Hardy cooking up an impromptu meal for a snarling gangster who insists on being fed.  Lacking actual food, the boys make a spaghetti and meatball dish using a sponge for the meatballs, string for the spaghetti and grated soap for the cheese. A precedent for this routine can be found in a 1927 Pizor comedy called Lunches and Punches.  Sid Smith, a lunch counter cook, is at odds with a rough, ill-tempered customer who insists that Smith serve him shredded wheat.  Smith finds that he is out of shredded wheat and, to avoid the customer getting violent, he fixes up broom bristles to look like the fibrous cereal.

    Saps at Sea provided a clever twist to the routine.  The gangster learns of Stan and Ollie's deception and forces them to eat their synthetic (or, as Stan says, "sympathetic") meal.

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  • 06/25/13--22:05: I Love Sushi

  • The Nickelodeon sitcom Drake and Josh staged a homage to I Love Lucy's famous chocolate factory routine in a 2006 episode called "I Love Sushi."  

    I Love Lucy ("Job Switching," 1952)

    Drake and Josh ("I Love Sushi," 2006)

    (Unfortunately, I could only find a Spanish-language version.)

    As a child, I appreciated the pressure that Lucy and Ethel were under to wrap the chocolates before they sped past on the conveyor belt, but I still thought it must be fun for these ladies to stuff their mouths full of chocolate as a way to hide the pieces they couldn't wrap in time.  Others must have felt the same way as they now sell Lucy Chocolate Factory chocolates.

    It is more gross than funny to see Drake and Josh with raw fish and seaweed hanging out of their engorged mouths.  It makes me cringe even more to watch the boys hide slimy cuts of fish by throwing them in the air and getting them to stick on the ceiling.  The selection of props can definitely change the character of a routine.   

    In rare cases, a gag or routine is so inextricably tied to its originator that the only way that another comedian can repeat this business is to present it in the form of a homage.  No gag has inspired a greater number of homages than Buster Keaton's falling building gag, which was a subject that I discussed in a prior article.

    I thank jayessell for identifying two more examples of animators using this gag.

     My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic ("Too Many Pinkies," 2012)

    Aladdin (1992)

    I have also come across two instances in which this gag was used by modern sitcoms. 

    Arrested Development ("The One Where They Build a House," 2004)

    The Middle ("The Name," 2013)

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    Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923) includes many great gags, but the following gag has always been one that stood out.

    A rowdy slapstick version of the gag, which ends with the horse kicking the villain to the ground, is initiated by dude-turned-cowboy Johnny Arthur in the Tuxedo comedy Honest Injun (1926).  Harold Lloyd effectively reworked the gag for The Kid Brother (1927).

    While working as a gag man on A Southern Yankee (1948), Keaton handed down the time-tested gag to a next-generation comedian, Red Skelton.


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  • 06/26/13--07:58: The Brides Wore Blue

  • I recently discovered a 1920 Roach comedy called Money to Burn. This film, which lasts under 9 minutes, is a succession of stock gags and routines.  Take, for example, this routine in which Snub Pollard hides under a trash can to avoid getting bitten by a dog.

    Harold Lloyd cleverly expanded the routine in Among Those Present (1921).

    It is well-constructed scenes like this one that gave Lloyd his elevated status in the comedy field.  But a Money to Burn scene that caught my attention even more is a variation on the "bridal chase" routine.  It is usually a horde of prospective brides that chase after the comedian, but this time Pollard is chased by an anti-masher police unit composed entirely of women.

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