Articles on this Page
- 08/24/13--09:58: _Illuminations from ...
- 08/24/13--11:39: _Silent Film Comedia...
- 08/25/13--09:05: _Spring Cleaning in ...
- 08/25/13--10:48: _Only Me
- 08/25/13--15:01: _Ready, Aim,. . . La...
- 08/25/13--15:10: _The Short-lived Dou...
- 08/25/13--15:49: _The Pirates of the ...
- 09/10/13--11:35: _A Pictorial Study o...
- 10/10/13--12:44: _A Mixed Bag of Fun
- 10/10/13--14:26: _Buster Keaton: Tele...
- 10/10/13--21:44: _Stuck on You: The H...
- 10/10/13--21:44: _Stuck!
- 10/24/13--20:30: _E. S. P. (1958)
- 10/24/13--21:20: _Two-reel Comedy Fes...
- 10/24/13--22:11: _Comedy Clippings
- 10/24/13--23:15: _Making a Fuss About...
- 10/25/13--00:28: _I Take My Hat and I...
- 10/25/13--10:23: _Gaumont Gets Stuck
- 10/25/13--11:46: _Soup Stains and Bur...
- 10/25/13--12:33: _Never Trust a Dummy
- 08/24/13--09:58: Illuminations from Lantern
- 08/24/13--11:39: Silent Film Comedians in the Trade Magazines
- 08/25/13--09:05: Spring Cleaning in August
- 08/25/13--10:48: Only Me
- 08/25/13--15:01: Ready, Aim,. . . Laugh?
- 09/10/13--11:35: A Pictorial Study of Waddy and Arty
- 10/10/13--12:44: A Mixed Bag of Fun
- 10/10/13--14:26: Buster Keaton: Television Icon
- 10/10/13--21:44: Stuck on You: The Handcuffs Routine
- 10/10/13--21:44: Stuck!
- 10/24/13--20:30: E. S. P. (1958)
- 10/24/13--21:20: Two-reel Comedy Festival
- 10/24/13--22:11: Comedy Clippings
- 10/24/13--23:15: Making a Fuss About Russ
- 10/25/13--00:28: I Take My Hat and I Bid You Adieu!
- 10/25/13--10:23: Gaumont Gets Stuck
- 10/25/13--11:46: Soup Stains and Burnt Tongues
- 10/25/13--12:33: Never Trust a Dummy
Lantern is a new online search platform that allows researchers access to more than 800,000 pages of digitized film periodicals. My first effort using Lantern turned up a few interesting trade ads and articles. I eagerly noted the various tidbits of information offered by this content. For instance, I learned from Film Daily that Lloyd Hamilton performed a wood-chopping routine at the beginning of the lost film Poor Boy (1922). This is important information for a man who has spent years cataloging Hamilton's comic business.
I also learned that Hamilton had fans in Japan. These days, Japan's moviegoing public has little interest in American comedians. The antics of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell are simply not something they find funny. In the last five years, the one American film comedy to rank high on Japan's box office charts was Ted, which starred a foul-mouthed CGI teddy bear. How do you say "Fuck me!" in Japanese? The Japanese prefer homegrown comedy. Take a look at the 2008 trailer for Hansamu sûtsu (English translation: The Handsome Suit).
As you can probably tell from the trailer, the film involves a homely oaf who discovers a magical suit that can make its wearer look attractive to the opposite sex. It's The Nutty Professor on sake. The highest grossing comedy in the Asian region is China's Lost in Thailand (2012), which has earned more than $200 million. The film is no groundbreaking masterpiece. Except for the presence of a Buddhist monk and a Muay Thai, the film is pretty much Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It's not that the storylines of American comedies are unappealing to the Japanese. It is just that, while the Japanese can accept foreign action heroes, they want comic heroes that are more like themselves. The silent film comedians leapt over language and cultural barriers, which brings me back to Mr. Hamilton. According to a news item in Moving Picture World, Hamilton was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of the prestigious Japanese theatrical journal Genbunsha and find that the periodical contained a three-page article about his film work. Evidently, the Japanese were fascinated with Hamilton-san. Hamilton was not the only Hollywood comedian who attracted an interest from the comedy fans of faraway lands. Larry Semon, who was a big favorite of Italian film fans, was awarded the Medal D'Onore at the Milan Fair.
Here is a news item about the production of Hamilton's Lonesome (1924). The source is a Photoplay issue dated February 12, 1924.
This set of photos casts Larry Semon as Pagliacci.
But Semon was no tragic clown. Writers of the day were obsessed with the idea of the tragic clown, which likely had to do with Chaplin's popular a-smile-and-a-tear methodology. A Photoplay writer defined Langdon as a tragic clown before Langdon first thought to introduce somber elements into his films. He spoke specifically of Langdon's "doleful face and pathetic figure." But I do not see this as an accurate description of the comedian in his pre-Three's a Crowd days.
A Photoplay writer was surprised to find that Semon didn't tote around a script during filming. He noticed instead that Semon occasionally dug his hand into the big pockets of his overalls and pulled out a little black book, which was filled with notes that the comedian had scribbled down at home. Semon explained, "I write it up every night, like a diary, with the next day's work."
The writer was struck by the scene that Semon was shooting that day. It was the sort of scene that that could be found in almost any Semon comedy. He wrote, "A fat man stood on a platform about twenty feet high and dropped a large pail filled with very gooey, smeary, thick soapsuds on the unprotected and innocent head of another fat man below. . . [T]he soapsuds Niagaraed all over the man's head and eyes and mouth and nose and ears and down his open shirt front, and seeped through his collar and trickled down his back. Then they took a big towel and wiped him off and dried his hair and brushed it so that it looked all nice and then - they did it all over again." The writer found it batty for actors to subject themselves to this sort of punishing work. But Semon certainly knew how to get laughs with a fat man and a pail of goo.
Here we have a photo of Billie Ritchie riding an ostrich. The fact that Ritchie was notoriously injured by an ostrich during the making of a film lends perverse novelty value to the photo.
This may be the scene that launched Frank Hayes into playing ugly old maids in various comedies for Fox, Sennett, Roach and Larry Semon.
The film is the Fox Sunshine comedy Wild Women and Tame Lions (1918). Hayes is braiding the long locks of his wig when a lion quietly strolls into the room and creeps up behind him. Hayes, unaware of the lion's presence, proceeds to braid the lion's tail into his wig.
Here is a trope that I never thought about before.
This is a rare image of early Edison comedy team Waddy and Arty.
One last find for today is a publicity still for the French comedy The Terrors of Rigadin (1911).
Let's start with one of the first film comedy stars.
I was cleaning out my computer folders and I found film clips, audio clips, screencaps and stills that I thought were interesting.
I don't remember what I had planned to do with these screencaps from Abbott & Costello's The Naughty Nineties (1945). In the first screencap, Lou looks frightened because he suspects he has been served a hamburger made of cat meat. His suspicions seem to be confirmed when he sticks a fork into the hamburger and hears the screech of cat (which actually comes from a cat under the table).
The next screencap is of Lou with a bear. What else needs to be said?
I got these photos from a NitrateVille thread on the Murphy bed in film. The Murphy bed is one of the great props of classic film comedy, which I discuss at length in The Funny Parts.
In the following clip, Australian comedian Frank Woodley has an awkward encounter with a funeral urn during a wake.
When I featured this clip in an earlier post, I failed to remember that a similar routine had been performed by Jerry Lewis in The Patsy (1964).
I posted photos of cutaway sets in a previous post. I want to expand on that post based on new images that I have obtained.
I wrote in The Funny Parts about the trapdoor chase that originated in the British theater. Lupino Lane talked about this routine in a 1957 BBC radio interview.
The star trap does look a little scary.
All of this cleaning and organizing has exhausted me. I am going to lie down and take a nap.
Lupino Lane received more than the usual amount of publicity for Only Me (1929), which featured the lively comedian going it alone in 24 distinctly different roles. I wrote about this film extensively in The Funny Parts and Eighteen Comedians of Silent Films. I put together a collection of screencaps to aide me in writing a complete and accurate analysis of the fast-moving film. I thought that it might be interesting to post the screencaps.
The plot centers on an inebriated man who visits a theater and finds that everyone in the theater looks like him.
He should know that his visit to the theater will not go well as, even before he enters the building, he is attacked by a theater sign.
Lane has been criticized by many for his excessive use of wire effects. This is an instance where the comedian pointlessly uses a wire effect to insert himself into a theater box.
Lane accidentally yanks off a ballerina's artificial leg and thinks it would be a good idea to strum it like a banjo.
Lane plays a sailor, villainous landlord, a baby and a mother in a melodrama sketch.
It ain't a fit night out for man or beast.
The baby gets tossed around roughly and, when the sailor and landlord fight, the baby gets trampled under foot.
This is just the sort of baby doll abuse that I wrote about in a recent post.
The rest of the film takes its cues from the Fred Karno Company's famous "Mumming Birds" sketch. A bratty boy in a theater box assaults the entertainers with food and beverage.
The inebriated man is appalled by much of what he sees.
Eventually, he initiates a pie fight with the various members of the cast.
The film is a noble effort, but it is hampered by low-budget special effects. It lacks the technical virtuosity that Buster Keaton brought to The Playhouse (1921), a film that no doubt influenced Only Me.
I am a big admirer of Lupino Lane. He was an entertainer that was able to successfully redefine himself during the many stages of his long career. Here is a publicity portrait of Lane that was made to publicize the pantomime "Babes In The Wood," which was staged at London's Lewisham Hippodrome.
This is one of the last portraits taken of Lane before his death in 1959.
Lane accomplished a great deal in his six decades as an entertainer. He abandoned Hollywood for the London theater, where he had immense success as a musical comedy star. Few comedians have enjoyed enduring popularity to the extent that Lane had.
Kudos, my good man!
A death by firing squad is a barbaric act dressed up with good manners and fine ceremony. It is fake civility to gently ask a man if he wants to wear a blindfold while a line of rifles are being aimed in his direction. And what is the point of having a drummer perform a drum roll? The incongruity of these elements has long made the firing squad a source of both comedy and drama. Movies allow us to emotionally process the unpleasantries of the world. We can laugh about these things or we can cry. But it would be difficult for me to laugh at a funny firing squad scene immediately after seeing a tragic firing squad scene. For me, this stretches irreverence too far.
This is the complete scene from Hands Up.
Of course, nothing is more grim than a firing squad in real life.
Test yourself. See how you feel after alternately watching comic and dramatic takes on the firing squad scene.
Monty Python's Flying Circus ("The Cycling Tour," 1972)
We are so accustomed to the lengthy firing squad ceremony that this abrupt execution is shocking.
Hollywood has provided firing squad parodies since its early days. This scene from the Keystone comedy Cohen Saves the Flag (1913) is the earliest example that I could find.
It is not surprising that Keystone, which specialized in mock melodramas, would turn to this type of material. At the time, film melodramas that featured firing squad scenes were released to theaters on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, Cohen Saves the Flag offers little more than Ford Sterling mugging for the camera. A more clever scene, which was devised by Marshall Neilan, appeared in The Deadly Battle at Hicksville (1914). Rotund John E. Brennan refuses to stand in place for a firing squad and manages to miraculously dodge bullets. Two soldiers hold him still as the next volley of bullets is fired, but the soldiers are shot and Brennan remains unscathed. An attempt is made to execute Brennan by firing a cannon at him, but Brennan catches the cannon ball in his bare hands.
Other comedy films that included fire squad scenes are The Battle of Ambrose and Walrus (1915), Mr. Jack Ducks the Alimony (1916), In the Ranks (1916), The Crackerjack (1925), The Kid from Spain (1932), Mooching Through Georgia (1939), Uncivil War Birds (1946), and A Southern Yankee (1948). Woody Allen presented firing squad scenes in three films - Casino Royale (1967), Bananas (1971) and Love and Death (1975).
A question that was in my mind when I wrote my biography of Lloyd Hamilton was whether or not Hamilton ever socialized with Buster Keaton. Both men had a mutual drinking buddy, Lew Cody, who figured prominently into their social activities. It seemed that the men were bound to cross paths at times. I have at long last discovered an occasion in which Cody did in fact bring Hamilton and Keaton together and, even more significant, he got the two master comedians to perform a burlesque act together.
In 1926, Cody was asked to host the grand opening of the Loew's State Theater in New Orleans. He brought along funny pals Hamilton and Keaton to add levity to the event. The actors rode together by train to New Orleans. Not surprising considering the festive ways of these men, the journey turned into a longstanding party on wheels.
At the theater's opening, Cody let the crowd know that big movie stars were in attendance. He introduced Gloria Swanson, which was the cue for Hamilton to walk out on stage in drag. Next, he introduced Douglas Fairbanks. Keaton appeared at this point to perform a series of comic acrobatics. Later, while making a speech, Marcus Loew was interrupted by Hamilton and Keaton, who stormed into the gathering to sell peanuts and sheet music. Loew's publicist, Nils Granlund, playfully ordered the men to sit down. Hamilton complied by laying down on the floor and listening attentively as Loew finished his speech.
Dorothy Mason, a Ziegfeld Follies girl, noted in a report to Exhibitors Daily Review that Keaton entertained the party on the train ride home by playing the ukulele. Hamilton, she said, was "very bashful," which is something that was commonly noted by people who had observed Hamilton in social situations.
It's a shame that the comedy stars of the silent era weren't free agents who could team up for the occasional buddy comedy. It would have been great if Keaton and Hamilton could have clowned together in the same film.
The mirror routine, which has been often imitated, has succeeded in producing an endless series of reflections. It is, in effect, an infinity mirror illusion. It could also be compared to a Russian nesting doll. For every doll you open, you will inevitably discover another one inside. It is the reason that I have returned to this routine on a number of occasions.
It contains a three-act play called My Friend from India.
We will get back to My Friend from India in a short while. In the meantime, let me take you to a tense scene that took place in a London courtroom on December 8, 1911, which was more than seventeen years after our brittle and yellowed book was published. The plaintiff in the case was the Schwartz Brothers, a comedy duo that had established a strong following in Berlin with a 15-minute mirror act called "The Broken Mirror." The success of the "Broken Mirror" act had, only months earlier, inspired the brothers to embark on a tour of Europe.
The brothers' routine was described in some detail by Variety critic Bayard. A struggle between a maid and a manservant leads to a dressing mirror being toppled and the glass being smashed to pieces. The servants must conceal the accident from their employer until a new mirror can be installed in the frame. Bayard wrote, "The master of the house, who is an actor, is suffering from the effects of a late night. When he goes to look at himself in the mirror he sees what he thinks is a reflection of himself, but which is actually his manservant. The movements of the two are identical, the only appreciable difference being that the manservant is by no means. . . [as] good-looking as his master. Finally the master tries to kiss the maid, and the manservant in his jealousy knocks the mirror over, leaving the impression that it has been newly broken."
The disparity in the looks of the principals was an element of the act that was abandoned in time. People responded better if the characters looked the same, which is the reason that many versions of the act were staged with lookalike siblings if not outright twins. On film, the routine evolved in time to have the same actor play both parts through the use of split-screen. This actually diminished the routine as it was the virtuosity of two performers perfectly synchronizing their movements that made this business so thrilling and funny to a live audience.
The Schwartz Brothers could not have been more upset when they arrived in London and discovered that they had been preceded into town by performers with an identical act. The "copy act," as they called it, was titled "Early Morning Reflections." The lead comedian of the piece was Lauri Wylie, whose brother was pantomime impresario Julian Wylie. The Schwartz Brothers did not hesitate to express their objections to the press and, within days, they filed a lawsuit against the promoters of "Early Morning Reflections" for copyright infringement.
At the time, Bayard gave the Schwartz Brothers' act a highly favorable review and dismissed "Early Morning Reflections" as an "inferior article." However, the critic made it clear that "The Broken Mirror" was not, as the Schwartz Brothers claimed, an original act. Bayard didn't see their situation as complicated. The Schwartz Brothers had great success "regenerat[ing] the old mirror business" and this prompted the "copyists" to create similar acts of their own. Sometimes the creative arts are not so creative. At the time that the Schwartz Brothers stirred up this controversy, there were at least four separate versions of the mirror act playing in major venues. There was the Schwartz Brothers' "Broken Mirror" act at the Hippodrome, "Early Morning Reflections" at the Palace, another version of "Broken Mirror" run by the Schwartz Brothers in Paris, and another version of "Early Morning Reflections" on the Orpheum Circuit in the United States. The Orpheum Circuit's version of the routine starred Sager Midgley and John Clark. Midgley, a well-respected veteran of the vaudeville stage, was not the sort of person who would knowingly steal an act that belonged to another performer. Here are publicity photos of the man.
It happened to be around the time of the lawsuit that Max Linder, who had worked with the Schwartz Brothers in Berlin, came out with a film adaptation of the routine. It was bad timing for the film comedian to copy the act at a time when the Schwartz Brothers were in such a litigious mood. The brothers warned Linder that they were prepared to file a lawsuit against him and this resulted in Linder's film studio, Pathé Frères, withdrawing the film from circulation.
In court, the defense attorney put forth two lines of defense. First, he presented witnesses willing to swear that "Early Morning Reflections" was nothing at all like "The Broken Mirror." The witnesses included magician David Devant and actor Lionel Rignold. Devant was a proprietor of Maskelyne's Theatre of Mystery, which showcased magic tricks and illusions in amusing sketches. Devant testified that "Early Morning Reflections" was entirely different than "The Broken Mirror" in that the routine had a supernatural premise. He went into detail in describing the routine. A man looks into a mirror and sees his own disembodied spirit. The spirit reveals the man's future and shows him the woman that he will marry. When the man reaches to shake hands with the spirit, the spirit transforms into the Mephistopheles. This was a major dispute of the essential facts of the case. Devant's testimony was, in my estimation, dubious. The following year, Wylie would take his "Early Morning Reflections" act to New Zealand. At the time, a critic with the Wairarapa Daily Times would describe Wylie's act as follows: "Hans and Gretchen in quarreling manage to smash a large mirror. To hide the disaster, Hans determines to act the part of 'The Reflection' in the frame of the broken mirror." The critic made no mention of Mephistopheles.
Devant's involvement in the case and the reason he was presented as a key witness was never explained in Variety's account of the trial. Was Devant simply an eyewitness of the act at the Palace Theatre or was the act in fact exhibited at Maskelyne's Theatre rather than the Palace Theatre as reported. If the act was shown at Maskelyne's Theatre, it would explain the reason that the act incorporated supernatural elements.
The second line of defense presented to the judge that day was more significant. The defense attorney presented evidence that, before the brothers introduced their act, similar mirror acts had been done before in several London productions. The Schwartz Brothers made no effort at all to deny this. They claimed that they were entitled to copyright protection because of the new excuse for the introduction of the broken mirror (the servant accidentally breaking the mirror). This brings us back to the book that was mentioned at the opening of the article. The mirror act was delineated in H. A. Du Souchet's My Friend from India, which was published in 1894. The play made its debut in France and it was followed soon after by an American version, which opened at Broadway's Bijou Theatre on October 6, 1896. In the play, a dressing mirror was broken when a maid took to dancing in front of the mirror and gave a spirited high kick that put her foot through the glass. So, it was not an original idea on the Schwartz Brothers' part to use a servant breaking the mirror as the premise for the act. But, in this case, the servant didn't pose as her master's reflection to hide her mistake. Through a series of misunderstanding and deceptions that can only be found in a farce, a man who is a guest at the home dresses in drag to conceal his identity and he is hiding behind the broken mirror when an elderly aunt enters the room. To keep from being discovered, he pretends to be the aunt's reflection. Makes sense, right?
Du Souchet wanted to leave no doubt in the viewer's mind that the aunt could mistake a man in drag as her own mirror reflection. So, he established that the woman was tipsy from a glass of wine and he also set it up that the woman had misplaced her eyeglasses. Blind and drunk, it was no wonder she didn't mistake a hat rack for her reflection. Also, the playwright made a point to explain the reason that the man and the aunt were wearing the same style of dress. The maid explained earlier in the play that the aunt and her niece happened to buy the same dress and the niece got so upset about this that she asked the maid to return her dress to the store. As it turned out, the maid let the guest borrow the dress. Routines tend to shed set-up as time goes on. Entertainers assume that their audience knows the routine as well as they do. What was the point of explanations? At first, the aunt fails to catch on to the deception. It isn't until later, when she returns to get another view of herself in the mirror, that she is told by her brother that the mirror had been shattered earlier in the day. She reaches out and finds, very clearly, that the mirror frame is empty. She believes that the mirror must be haunted and feels as if she is about to faint. A guest rushes forth to revive her with smelling salts.
In 1897, Justin Huntley McCarthy reworked the French farce for the London stage under the title My Friend the Prince. This mean that the mirror routine was already familiar to audiences in London, Paris and New York when the Lyman Twins introduced the routine to the American vaudeville stage in 1900. It's no wonder that, in 1911, Variety referred to this as the "old mirror business."
The judge expressed impatience with the arguments in the Schwartz Brothers' case, saying that he had seen neither of the sketches and had no time to do so. He dismissed the complaint, deciding that the premise of the mirror routine was by now public property. A writer with Variety pointed out that, even if the brothers had won the case and put an end to "Early Morning Reflections," the fact remained that other stage companies were well booked with similar acts and the brothers would have been required to start legal proceedings anew.
It is interesting, though, that so many other mirror acts did in fact rely on the Schwartz Brothers' premise. The servant's desire to cover up the fact that he broke his master's dressing mirror was a reasonable set-up for the routine. Even more important, it made the servant an understandable and sympathetic protagonist even as he engaged in the silliness of pretending to be his master's reflection. Obviously, class tensions provided a strong undercurrent to this comic business. It could be thrilling to see a servant fool, and even mock, his master during such a daring confrontation. The brothers may have truly had a point about the importance of the way they set up the routine. However, a 1906 edition of Variety included an item that shed an unflattering light on the duo. The item was a letter published in Variety's "Artists' Forum."
Fair Haven, N. J., Sept. 13.
In compliance with your request regarding the origination of the burlesque equilibristic work performed with the invisible wire, etc., I will try and explain same as nearly as possible. The idea came to me and I produced it during the two seasons that we were with the Lew Doekstader show in 1892-3-4. This will be vouched for by Mr. Lew Doekstader, and also Frank Dumont, who was with the show at the time and who now conducts Dumont's Minstrels in Philadelphia, Pa.
The season of 1894-5 we visited Europe, opening at the Alhambra, London. Our time was extended to four months and our act at that time was copied, might say stolen bodily. We played two months at the Winter Garden, Berlin. At the close of our engagement there a German team (Schwartz Brothers) followed us doing the same business and our invisible wire work exactly. A positive fact that they themselves will not deny, for at the time they made a business of burlesquing any and all big and successful acts. The following year we returned to America and were engaged by the Weber & Fields show. At that time we shifted our hand, head balancing, etc., and substituted our burlesque aerial Japanese perch act, as at that time that line of work was not looked upon as a novelty.
Shortly after, my old partner and I separated, he returning to Europe and I remained here and took on a partner, assuming the same firm name. We were booked then at Hammerstein's Olympia Theatre in New York. At the regular Monday morning rehearsal William Hammerstein approached me saying that he had just returned from Europe and he saw an act there doing our wire work, jesting me as to how good he thought the act was. When I asked him if he didn't give any credit to the originators, a warm debate followed. I have never played Hammerstein's since.
Now I understand there are several teams using the wire and doing a facsimile of my work and tricks in same. I find that it has hurt me a great deal in securing engagements. Still there is no way to prevent it.
I don't remember ever doing a wrong to any brother artist during my twenty years in the vaudeville branch of the show business.
Of Blocksom and Burns.
So, if this letter is to be believed, the Schwartz Brothers lacked credibility. They loudly complained of piracy when they, themselves, were pirates. It is possible that the name of their act, itself, was a lie. It was reported by one source that this "brother" duo was actually a father and son.
New versions of the mirror act continued to crop up. Only two months after the Schwartz Brothers' lawsuit was dismissed, the legendary Hanlon Brothers added the mirror act to their "Just Phor-Phun" show. This version of the routine centered on a ham actor getting dressed in his hotel room and a member of the hotel staff pretending to be the man's reflection. Variety editor Sime Silverman was enthusiastic in his praise of the act. He anticipated the Schwartz Brothers having "fits" about the new act, but he saw no justification for this reaction since it was clearly established that a number of others had performed the routine before the brothers had.
In June of 1913, Doris Wilson and Co. (singer Doris Wilson and her sisters Dot and Alma) introduced a mirror act called "Through the Looking Glass." Doris was a veteran star of musical comedy who, according to one critic, could "sing top notes."
Dot and Alma were described by the San Francisco Call as a "small but extraordinarily active chorus." Dot received big applause of her own for her dancing prowess. Silverman acknowledged that the mirror act had been done many times before, but he insisted that the Wilson girls did it "differently and much better." One big difference was that the girls had turned the routine into a musical number. Doris actually burst out in song midway through the scene. Doris played a wealthy woman and her sisters played her maids. She started out the routine with one sister and eventually the third sister became mixed up in the action. This is essentially what happens in the Duck Soup routine when Chico joins Groucho and Harpo at the end of the routine. According to Silverman, the pretty sisters generally looked alike except that one was shorter than the others, but it hardly mattered as the sisters were able to look sufficiently similar by wearing identical gowns and hairstyles. Wilson and her sisters, also known as The Doris Wilson Trio, carried on with this routine for at least the next nine years.
Oh, thank you, Justin.
This would have worked, too.
Edison produced a three-reel film adaptation of My Friend from India in 1914. Walter Perkins, who had originated the title role on Broadway, recreated the role for the film. A Motography critic who reviewed the film referred to "several stunts which have been performed before." He pointed specifically to the mirror routine. He wrote, "[B]ecause of their difficulties and the opportunities for introducing new wrinkles in them, [these stunts] never fail to amuse if accomplished correctly and smoothly." It is true that the routine offers "opportunities for introducing new wrinkles," which is the reason that the routine has lasted as long as it has.
The Schwartz Brothers continued successfully with the mirror routine for years. Audiences never seemed to tire of the act, responding every time as if it was entirely new to them. Of course, it was also possible that many people in the audience were not familiar with the routine. After all, this was before television was around to broadcast the same entertainment content to millions of people at the same time. As a New York Clipper critic observed, the duo had come to expect the act to achieve "the usual laugh effect." Another critic who observed the brothers perform the act was impressed that "[e]very point registered with a wallop."
The Schwartz Brothers' journey with this act likely ended in 1921. A version of the mirror routine very much like the Schwartz Brothers' version appeared in Max Linder's Seven Years Bad Luck, which was released on February 6, 1921. The Schwartz Brothers promptly sued film producers Robertson-Cole and First National for unauthorized use of their act. The brothers perhaps thought that the American courts would be more sympathetic to their cause, but nothing was found in my research to suggest that this case ever made it to court.
Fred Schwartz was the only member of the act to receive billing when the act was presented at San Francisco's Hippodrome Theater on July 6, 1921. Did his partner retire or pass away by this point? I was unable to find a photo of the Schwartz Brothers, but I did find a film clip of Fred. He plays the tailor in this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936).
The routine made its return to Broadway in 1921. The routine was now performed by the lovely Fairbanks twins, Madeline and Marion, in a musical comedy called Two Little Girls in Blue. I don't know if these young ladies were funny, but I'm sure that they furnished a version of the routine that was aesthetically pleasing.
The last review that I found for "The Broken Mirror" was published on December 9, 1921, in response to a performance at the Shubert's Crescent Theatre in Brooklyn, New York. A Variety critic wrote, "Schwartz Brothers struck a soft spot. . . with their standard comedy turn 'The Broken Mirror.' The act wears well, the laughs coming with just as much frequency Tuesday night as they did when the 'Mirror' skit was first seen around quite a few years back."
In 1923, the mirror routine was included in the lavish George White's Scandals musical revue. The Variety critic wrote, "The 'Mirror' number is well fitted in green and pearls and large picture hats."
Hollywood took full possession of the routine after this. DeMille Pictures Corporation released a remake of My Friend from India in 1927. Here is the mirror routine from that film.
The scene is pretty much as it was described in the play. The main difference is that, in the play, the woman talked to herself endlessly in the scene. She expressed her pleasure seeing how slim she looked in the mirror. She complained aloud that her hat was sitting on her head incorrectly and set out to adjust the hat pins. For sure, the pantomime with the hat pins got more laughs than any of the dialogue. Even Groucho knew to stow the wisecracks when he performed the routine. Interestingly, hats remained key props in many variations of this routine.
So, that's our story for today. I hope that you liked it. For now, I will study the Voynich Manuscript to see if I can find evidence of a 15th Century version of the mirror routine.
I will end this article with a version of the mirror routine performed by Norman Wisdom in the 1958 military comedy The Square Peg.
One of my recent posts included a photo of Edison Studios' Waddy and Arty, one of film's first comedy teams. I only know of one Waddy and Arty film that is still around. The film is a one-reel comedy called On the Lazy Line (1914), which the esteemed Kalton Lahue singled out for discussion in World of Laughter: The Motion Picture Comedy Short, 1910-1930. I have long been curious about the team and, after looking into their history, I have come to believe that they are worthy of attention.
Wadsworth joined the Edison company in the Fall of 1911. He was immediately featured in broad comedy roles. In Willie Wise and his Motor Boat (1911), Wadsworth purchases a motor boat to impress a young woman, but he finds that it is harder to steer the boat than he imagined. The boat goes speeding wildly through the waves and, via trick photography, leaps over a small island.
Wadsworth's comedies were, in general, silly and lively. Another example is As the Tooth Came Out (1913), in which Wadsworth played a man suffering from a toothache. Wadsworth has nightmarish hallucinations when he is given nitrous oxide by his dentist. He imagines that his tooth is extracted by a horned demon. Then, the tooth grows to six feet tall and chases him through town. When the tooth catches up to him, it taps him on the shoulder and announces, "Tag, you're it!"
The story for Seven Years Bad Luck (1913) squeezed a great deal of action into one reel. Wadsworth seems to fall victim to an epidemic of bad luck after his maid breaks a mirror in his home. It could not be a worse day for him. A flower pot falls on his head and ruins his hat, he loses his wallet, he falls down a hole, and he loses his job. He is trying to hang himself when his playful dog runs off with the rope. Before he can find another way to kill himself, the man who dropped the flower pot on his head arrives at his home with a new hat. All sorts of good luck follows. The best turn of events occurs when his old boss has a change of heart and offers him a better job than the one he had before. Wadsworth, who no longer believes that breaking a mirror brings bad luck, ends the film by smashing a large mirror.
I was particularly amused reading the story for With Slight Variations (1914). Wadsworth uses inheritance money to take an ocean cruise, but deck hands rob him of his money and throw him overboard. Wadsworth ends up stranded on a tropical island. When a showgirl's trunk washes up on shore, he dresses up an bundle of sticks with one of the showgirl's flashy outfits. Cast Away would have been a different movie if Tom Hanks had found a FedEx package with showgirl outfits. I am sure that Wadsworth's bundle of sticks was a better companion than Hanks' Wilson the Volley Ball. As With Slight Variations progresses, a captain arrives with a party to explore the island. Wadsworth is hailed as a hero when he bravely rescues the party from the island's cannibal natives.
In His Undesirable Relatives (1913), Wadsworth is desperate to rid himself of freeloading relatives. He finally comes up with the idea to have his maid (Alice Washburn) pretend to have the measles by applying spots of cranberry sauce across her face.
Arthur Housman was Arty. Housman started working at Edison at the start of 1912. His first film for Edison was Everything Comes to Him Who Waits (1912), which Moving Picture World described as a "crockery breaking farce." Charles Ogle, a burly actor who had the distinction of being the cinema's first Frankenstein monster, starred as a clumsy, hot-tempered waiter. When the waiter is billed by the owner for the dishes he has broken, the waiter goes on a rampage and breaks every dish that he can put his hands on. Wadsworth as the restaurant owner and Housman as a fellow waiter cower in fear as the former Frankenstein monster shows that he regards dishes as being just as bad as fire.
At first, Housman was confined to supporting roles in slapstick farces, many of which featured Wadworth in the lead role. In Two Knights in a Barroom (1912), Wadsworth played a tramp begging various merchants for a handout and Housman played one of the merchants that the tramp approached.
|When the Right Man Comes Along (1913)|
Housman received one of his first leading man roles in When the Right Man Comes Along (1913). He played the "right man" of the title, but the film was really a vehicle for Mary Fuller, who was cast as a Wall Street titan. Fuller's character, a cold and aloof business woman, has no interest in marriage until she meets Arthur Royden (Housman). Royden spurns her attentions at first, but he has a change of heart when the business woman abandons her mannish dress for more feminine fashions.
Housman had the spotlight to himself in at least two films. The first was The Sultan and the Roller Skates (1914). The plot of an evil sultan kidnapping a pretty American woman was familiar, but the filmmakers introduced a funny twist to the proceedings. It had the kidnapping sultan, the beautiful American woman and, as a special feature, roller skates. A sultan (William Chalfin) is so fascinated by American champion roller-skater Mae Higgins (Elsie MacLeod) that he has his soldiers take her captive. Sam Spaulding (Housman), with whom Mae recently won a roller-tango contest, formulates a plan to rescue Mae. He brings sample cases of roller skates to the sultan and offers to provide training and equipment to the sultan's extensive harem so that they can roller skate for his entertainment. Eventually, Sam and Mae use roller skates to outrace the sultan's guards and speed out of the palace.
|Getting to the Ball Game (1914)|
One other interesting film that starred Housman was A Story of Crime (1914), which took a satirical look at gossiping neighbors. A dim-witted servant girl misunderstands when Mr. Dorner (Housman) playfully threatens to strike his wife and she promptly informs others in the community of the man's ferocity. Soon, the neighbors are talking and the incident described by the servant girl is exaggerated each time that it is related. In the end, it is reported to the police that Mr. Dorner has killed his wife. The police arrive at the Dorner's home and are surprised to find a couple that is the model of domestic bliss.
Wadsworth occasionally showed up in a small role in a Housman comedy. He was a neighbor in A Story of Crime and the sultan's treasurer in The Sultan and the Roller Skates. The first time that the actors had more than a passing interaction on screen was in an elopement comedy called Beau Crummel and His Bride (1913). The plot was not at all elaborate or unique. After Beau Crummel (Housman) runs off with Elise (Elsie McLeod), Elise's disapproving father (Wadworth) tracks the couple to a hotel and makes trouble for them.
As a change of pace, Housman wore funny old age make-up for a slapstick comedy called The Two Merchants (1913). Housman played a small-town merchant engaged in an intense rivalry with a second merchant played by William West. The two men set aside their animosity for one another to compete against a new store in town.
|Falling in Love with Inez (1913)|
Housman had a supporting role in Falling in Love with Inez (1913). The film revealed the travails endured by the caretaker of a beautiful young woman. Uncle John is infuriated when his young clerks (Edwin Clarke and Housman) show an interest in the comely niece that he has hired to be his stenographer. He replaces the clerks with hideous old men, but his niece continues to attract men wherever she goes.
|Housman in How a Horseshoe Upset a Happy Family (1912).|
Edison made an extraordinary effort to promote Housman's starring role in The Gilded Kidd (1914), which was a special expanded comedy (two reels instead of the usual one reel that Edison devoted to comedies). The film featured Housman as a bratty man-child named Harry Kidd. The film opens with Kidd stealing a clothing store mannequin for a prank. A police officer catches Kidd with the dummy, but the police officer reacts in a friendly and familiar manner and doesn't bother to arrest Kidd. It turns out that the prankster is immune from the authorities due to his famous financier dad. The theft of the dummy is far from being the first unlawful deed perpetuated by Kidd, who has achieved newspaper notoriety for his frequent antics.
Kidd falls in love with Elsie (Elsie MacLeod), but Elsie is reluctant to marry a man who is a public joke. Kidd becomes distressed to learn that Elise has become interested in Tom Graham (Edward Earle). Kidd and Graham come up with a wager to settle their rivalry. Graham, who knows that it is impossible for Kidd to be arrested, vows to stop seeing Elise if Kidd can find a way to get himself thrown into jail. If Kidd loses the bet, he must give up his pursuit of Elise.
Kidd fails to get arrested for breaking a window or stealing fruit because the victims know to simply send a bill to Kidd's father. Kidd tells the police that he murdered a man, but the police refuse to believe his confession since he is unable to produce a body. In desperation, Kidd bribes a warden to let him take a prisoner's place in a jail cell. Elise is part of a woman's club that comes to the jail that day. When she sees Kidd in the cell, she checks out the register and sees that the crime listed for this inmate is "breach of promise." Elsie becomes furious and refuses to ever see Kidd again.
|The Blue Coyote Cherry Crop (1914)|
Housman played a more dramatic role in The Blue Coyote Cherry Crop (1914), which offered a story of tragedy and sentiment. When an old miner dies, three young miners (Robert Conness, Carlton King and Housman) band together to secretly provide financial support to the old man's daughter, who is attending a fashionable boarding school in the East.
|The Blue Coyote Cherry Crop (1914)|
The actors in Edison's comedy units had to be ready to serve in a variety of functions from film to film. Wadsworth and Housman appeared together as dissolute husbands in When the Men Leave Town (1914), but the fact that they were among the men who leave town meant that they weren't around for much of the action. The film was a satire on the suffragette movement. When a woman is elected mayor, she bans drinking, smoking and gambling, which is the reason for the men leaving town. The women plan to operate the town without the men, but they run into a few problems. First, the women who take charge of trash pick-ups find the trash cans too heavy to lift. Also, the trolley breaks down and none of the women know how to repair it. The women try to telegraph the men to return home, but even sending a telegraph is beyond their ability. Instead, they use a carrier pigeon to get word to the men, who agree to come back as long as they can continue to drink, smoke and gamble.
Here are films that included a disunited Wadsworth and Housman in the cast:
What Happened to Mary (1912)
Uncle Mun and the Minister (1912)
A Queen for the Day (1912)
How They Got the Vote (1913)
After the Welsh Rabbit (1913)
Superstitious Joe (1913)
He Would Fix Things (1913)
Porgy's Banquet (1913)
Qualifying for Lena (1914)
Post No Bills (1914)
A Matter of High Explosives (1914)
|Harry Gripp and William Wadsworth in Post No Bills (1914).|
Wadsworth and Housman were originally teamed for a series called "Wood B. Wedd." Wood B. Wedd, as the character's name suggests, is a man committed to finding himself a wife. As the producers saw it, the character's romantic temperament was expected to led him into "weird and unusual situations." Wadsworth assumed the role of the lovesick bachelor. Housman played Wedd's devoted best friend, Darby Jenks, to whom Wedd turned whenever he needed help out of a difficult situation.
|Her Face was Her Fortune (1913)|
The first film in the series, Her Face was Her Fortune (1913), begins by showing several women reject Wedd's proposals of marriage. Widow Conner puts up a fight when Wedd tries to take back the lovely bouquet that he brought with him. When Wedd emerges from her home, he is holding a bunch of crushed and bent flowers. Wedd corresponds with a wealthy woman, who agrees to marry him. He arrives at the woman's home to meet her for the first time. The woman turns to face Wedd, revealing a chin adorned with long whiskers. She explains that she earned her fortune as a bearded lady in the circus. Wedd is so appalled that he flees the home immediately.
What follows is a listing of the other series entries with photos and selected plot summaries. The second entry in the series, The Lovely Señorita (1914), is not included in the list because it did not feature Housman.
The Beautiful Leading Lady (1914)
The Vision in the Window (1914)
Wedd falls in love with a beautiful woman that he sees sitting in a window. He receives bumps and bruises during several ill-fated attempts to reach the woman. He finally succeeds in meeting the lovely lady only to discover that she is a wax figure.
In High Life (1914)
A Lady of Spirits (1914)
Wedd is frightened away from his latest lady love when a dinner at her home is attended by the woman's dearly departed relatives.
The Revengeful Servant Girl (1914)
A servant girl, Araminta (Lizzie Conway), is angry when Wedd breaks off their engagement to propose marriage to another woman (Elsie MacLeod). Araminta is determined to do anything she can to make trouble for the new couple. One evening, she slips a sleeping mixture into Wedd's coffee so that he will oversleep the next morning and miss his wedding. In the morning, Jenks uses everything from gongs to ice water to arouse Wedd from his deep slumber. Unfortunately, Wedd arrives at the church minutes after his bride has departed. The jilted groom believes his situation could not be worse until a group of angry guests descend upon him and beat him into the ground.
A Canine Rival (1914)
Wedd, who hates dogs, has no chance of marrying Dora unless he can find a way to cope with her unfriendly dog Gyp.
The Buxom Country Lass (1914)
Fanny Merrick will not marry Wedd unless he can prove he can put in a hard day's work on her farm. Wedd, who has never done farm work before, enlists the aid of Jenks to get his chores done. The inexperienced farm hands have nothing but trouble throughout the day. They struggle to milk a cow, they get attacked by bees, and they chase after pigs that have fled their pen.
Love by the Pound (1914)
Wedd wants to marry the stout Miranda when he learns that her uncle will give the young woman her weight in gold on the day that she marries.
Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes (1914)
Wedd is interested in marrying a wealthy woman, but the woman will not accept his marriage proposal unless he submits to a series of tests to prove that he is fit and hygienic.
Wood B. Wedd Goes Snipe Hunting (1914)
Wedd realizes that his many failures in the matrimonial field were due to the way that Jenks managed his affairs. The friends part ways and are soon competing for the affections of the same girl, Susie. After Wedd outdoes Jenks in a snipe hunting contest, Susie happily consents to marry him. The couple go off to a motion picture show, but the theatre happens to be running a "Wood B. Wedd" comedy. When Susie sees Wedd on screen embracing a buxom woman, she becomes outraged and returns the engagement ring.
|On the Lazy Line (1914)|
During this period, Wadworth and Housman were also paired up in comedies that were not part of the "Wood B. Wedd" series. These films included Seth's Sweetheart (1914), On the Lazy Line (1914), The Basket Habit (1914) and Something to A Door (1914). Seth's Sweetheart cast the pair as romantic rivals. Housman, a "city chap," steals Sally (Viola Dana) from country boy Wadsworth and Wadsworth does his best to win back the fair lady. The plot to Something to A Door turned Wadsworth and Housman into business rivals. Bessie's fiancé, Jim Ferris (Housman), and her father, Papa Hammond (Wadsworth), have a clash at a board of directors meeting and the father retaliates by demanding that his daughter break off her engagement with Ferris. Ferris is enjoying a visit with Bessie when Hammond arrives home unexpectedly.
He hurries to sneak out of the home before Hammond sees him and, in his haste, he slams the door shut on the tail of his expensive grey overcoat. Hammond sees Ferris through the window and, although he clearly recognizes the man, he phones the police to report that a burglar in a grey overcoat is standing on his front porch.
Ferris reluctantly slips out of his coat to make a hasty escape. Hammond is removing the coat from the porch when the door slams shut behind him. Locked out of his home, he sits down on his porch and throws on the coat to keep warm. When the police arrive, they assume that Hammond is the suspicious character who was reported to them and they promptly place him under arrest.
Wadsworth and Housman moved directly from the "Wood B. Wedd" series to the "Waddy and Arty" series. Wadsworth adopted old age make-up for the role of Waddy. Housman kept to the same look that he had adopted for the Darby Jenks character. Housman was, in this modest guise, more natural than other film comedians of the day. At a time, most film comedians wore big moustaches and made funny faces. Housman, as Arty, didn't have a moustache, a wig, a putty nose, or greasepaint eyebrows. The lack of facial hair made him look young and innocent. The character of Arty was described by one reviewer as "beardless and youthfully callow." Stills suggest that he commonly reacted to situations with a deadpan expression. Reviewers sometimes complained that a Waddy and Arty comedy would have been better if the action moved faster, but the slower pace of their films may have been intentional. Of course, it is impossible to dispute the reviewers' complaints about pacing without actually seeing the films. But Waddy, a fatigued old man, and Arty, a vacuous young man, didn't look as if they were designed to be the most energetic pair.
Here is a listing of the Waddy and Arty comedies with photos and selected plot summaries.
The Courtship of the Cooks (1914)
Two cooks compete to win the heart of a wealthy widow.
The Champion Process Server (1915)
Expensive Economy (1915)
A man gets into trouble when he fails to leave a waitress a tip.
A Superfluous Baby (1915)
Lodgings for Two (1915)
Found, a Flesh Reducer (1915)
Arty, a "reducing expert," helps Waddy to lose weight.
Seen from the Gallery (1915)
Suspicious Characters (1915)
Waddy and Arty break into a mansion with the intent to rob jewels out of a safe. Meanwhile, the owner of the home fails to notice his young daughter climb into the safe. He locks the safe with the daughter still inside and then casually retires to bed. The ill-intentioned burglars become heroes when their safecracking efforts free the adorable little girl from her dire confinement. The film climaxes with the burglars getting into a pie fight with a police officer.
The Tailor's Bill (1915)
Wadsworth, a tailor, tracks down Housman to collect payment of a bill.
A Spiritual Elopement (1915)
After her father dies, Evelyn Banks (Viola Dana) gets in a dispute with her uncle (Wadsworth) over property papers that belonged to her father. Evelyn enlists help from her boyfriend (Housman) to scare off her uncle by making him think that her house is haunted. The film climaxes with Housman performing the classic Commedia dell'arte routine "Lazzi of the Statue."
One Way to Advertise (1915)
Edison's official plot summary: "A harmless advertisement is transformed into something quite shocking when a goat rips the paper in half."
Hypno and Trance (1915)
Rooney the Bride (1915)
Rooney (Wadsworth) does not have the best day. To start, he clumsily drops bricks on a young woman as she walks under his ladder. When he gets home, Rooney lets his seamstress wife use him as a tailor's dummy so that she can stitch up a customer's bridal gown. When the bride arrives, Rooney realizes that this is the same woman that he injured earlier in the day. He is so anxious to avoid the woman that he leaps out of a window in the bridal gown. An improbable twist in the story, or I should say a twist more improbable than the other improbable twists of the story, leads Rooney to pose as the bride of Artie Boone (Housman) to help Boone collect a $10,000 wedding gift from his uncle.
Her Country Cousin (1915)
Seen Through the Make-Up (1915)
Hans and His Boss (1915)
Arty tells his girlfriend, a rich widow, that he has to go out drinking with his boss if he wants to keep his job. He later has to have Waddy pretend to be his boss to maintain his ruse.
Music in Flats (1915)
Arty takes singing lessons and, when a beautiful woman who lives downstairs becomes enchanted hearing the singing teacher's voice, Arty pretends that it was his voice that the woman heard.
A Clean Sweep (1915)
His Sad Awakening (1915)
Press releases for this film focused on the old age make-up that Housman adopted for the film.
Martha's Romeo (1915)
The Idle Rich (1915)
Nearly a Scandal (1915)
Chinks and Chickens (1915)
A farmer finds broken planks in his hen house and instructs his farm hands, Waddy and Arty, to "close up the chinks in the hen house." Waddy and Arty, who fail to understand their boss' use of the word "chinks," proceed to raid a number of laundries so that they can apprehend Chinese people and lock them in the hen house.
All Cooked Up (1915)
The Waddy and Arty series ended after turning out 24 official releases between December, 1914, and May, 1915. This put the total of films that featured both Wadsworth and Housman at 45. Wadsworth and Housman continued to work at Edison, but they never again appeared together in the same film. Housman worked with Edison newcomer Oliver Hardy during this period. Hardy gleefully thrashed Housman in the college hazing comedy The Simp and the Sophomores (1915). Housman left Edison on July 1, 1915. The following notice appeared in Motography.
July 3, 1915
Arthur Housman Leaves Edison
Arthur Housman, one of the most universally popular comedians on the screen, left the Edison Company on July 1. Mr. Housman's versatility enables him to play drama, light comedy, and slapstick comedy with perfect ease. Most of his screen appearances while a member of the Edison stock company for the last few years, however, have been in comedy; being co-star with William Wadsworth in the "Waddy and Arty" series, and featured in a number of one and two-reel comedies which he practically carried with his own humorous characterizations. One of his best pictures was "The Basket Habit," in which he played the part of a monocled, shrinking Englishman, and which was featured on the program of the New York Theater on Broadway on the day of its release.
It was reasonable for Housman to have left Edison at this time since the company was about to close its comedy division to focus its resources on dramatic productions.
Wadsworth played character roles in Edison dramas for the next two years. His film career ended when Edison moved to shut down their total operations in 1917. Wadsworth did not hesitate to return to the stage. He worked frequently on Broadway between 1920 and 1944. He originated the role of Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, in the 1938 Broadway production of Our Town. He died in Brooklyn in 1950 at the age of 75.
|The Lash of Destiny (1917)|
I continue to find interesting film clips, audio clips and image scans on the Internet. Let me share my latest discoveries.
Buster Keaton managed to turn an old handshake routine into a running gag in Spite Marriage (1929).
This routine was performed earlier by Lupino Lane in a Mountie comedy called Monty of the Mounted (1927).
Vaudeville legends Shaw & Lee can be seen performing the routine in a film clip from 1949.
Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton both played cocky lifeguards in films made in 1917. The Lloyd film was By the Sad Sea Waves and the Keaton film was Coney Island. A comparison of their performances are provided by animated screencaps at http://anarchivist.tumblr.com/post/35422782608/harold-lloyd-in-by-the-sad-sea-waves-1917.
Numerous GIF files of Keaton are circulating on the Internet. These are my favorites. Others can be found at http://fuckyeahbusterkeaton.tumblr.com.
Keaton performs yet another version of the "carrying an unconscious woman" routine in What! No Beer? (1933).
The following clip gives credit to the classic comedians who influenced Morecambe and Wise.
Billie Reeves (left) boxes Billy Potter in a 1915 Lubin comedy, The Substitute.
"He's the biggest star in motion picture comedies today." Who could they be talking about other than Snooky the Humanzee?
Who was Moe Howard's favorite comedian? Take a quick listen to the following audio clip for the answer.
That's right, Moe said that his favorite comedian was Lloyd Hamilton.
In his final years, Buster Keaton acted as a guest star on a number of popular television series.
"Once Upon a Time" (The Twilight Zone, 1961)
Paul Wayne, a staff writer for Bewitched, revealed a long unknown television credit for Keaton. Wayne wrote a 1965 episode of Bewitched called "The Magic Cabin." The plot departs from the series' usual settings. Samantha and Darrin look forward to spending a restful weekend at a cabin in the woods, but they arrive to find the cabin to be so decrepit that it is uninhabitable. Darrin is desperate to salvage the weekend and relents to Samantha using witchcraft to transform the cabin into a dream home. The problem is that several unexpected visitors show up at the cabin, which compels Samantha to repeatedly change the cabin back and forth between its old decrepit condition and its new glamorous condition. Meanwhile, Keaton sets up an easel and canvas on a hill that overlooks the cabin and he gets to work to create an oil painting of the rustic scene below. Wayne said, "So, of course, every time Buster Keaton saw the cabin, it was a different cabin. So he threw away one oil [painting] and started another. And by the end of it he decided he was done with painting. You can imagine what Keaton had done with it. It was just absolutely brilliant. But it was so long it had become unwieldy and they had to cut it." It's a shame that they couldn't have found room for Keaton's antics. I personally think that Keaton would have made a great warlock on the series.
Keaton also remained busy promoting products in television and print ads. Madison Avenue took advantage of the fact that Keaton had evolved into a baggy-eyed, craggy-faced media icon.
Let me close this article with clips from the Donna Reed episode. I enjoyed Keaton's brief improvisation with the little boy's sling in the hospital scene.
Lewellen, Scott (2013). Funny You Should Ask: Oral Histories of Classic Sitcom Storytellers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company.
The handcuffs routine has been a stock sitcom routine for the last 64 years. It is the simplicity of the routine that has allowed it to flourish. No real set-up is required. All one needs to initiate the routine is two actors and a standard set of handcuffs.
Handcuffs often turned up in early Hollywood westerns. Usually when a sheriff pulled out his handcuffs, it meant that he was about to take a criminal into custody and the film was over. Filmmakers did not immediately recognize the possibilities of this simple prop. It took writers and directors awhile to realize it was possible to draw out tension by keeping a pair of characters in handcuffs for an extended period of time.
The drama of a lawman and criminal bound together was exploited in Greed (1924). After murdering his wife, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is pursued into Death Valley by former friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt). McTeague overpowers Marcus and brutally beats him. Marcus handcuffs himself to McTeague moments before he dies. As the film ends, it is clear that no hope exists for McTeague, who is now left in the desert without a horse or water and is manacled to a dead man.
Handcuffs played a pivotal role in the 1915 Vitagraph comedy Mr. Jarr and the Lady Reformer. Mr. Jarr is accompanying a friend's sister on a train trip. A zealous suffragette misunderstands the relationship of the traveling companions, believing that the man is luring an innocent young woman away from her home. The suffragette handcuffs Mr. Jarr to his berth and takes the young woman away with her. In the morning, a porter mistakes the handcuffed passenger for a lunatic bound for an asylum.
The first element of the definitive handcuffs routine is the mismatched pair. Comedy can often come from forcing together two people who lack the sense or humility to get along. A disagreeable pair that is bound together by handcuffs and doesn't have a key to get loose is a dilemma made in comedy heaven.
A rudimentary example of this sort of handcuffs humor can be found in a 1922 western comedy, Blaze Away. Paul Parrott, a new sheriff, handcuffs himself to a desperado named Bad Bill and proceeds to get himself tossed around like a rag doll. The two men get into a pushing match, which ends with the sheriff locked behind bars in his own jail cell.
A similar routine turned up in Once a Hero (1931). A bank clerk (Emerson Treacy) sneaks up behind a bank robber and knocks him unconscious. The next day, Treacy is hurrying to his wedding when he gets into trouble with a police officer and gets tossed into a jail cell, where he just happens to become handcuffed to the bank robber he thwarted the day before. The robber fails to recognize Treacy, but Treacy is fearful that the menacing criminal will eventually figure out who is. The situation takes an even worse turn when the robber makes a bold escape, dragging Treacy along behind him.
A small man being helplessly dragged along by a larger and more aggressive man was the premise of a handcuffs routine performed by Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in What! No Beer? (1933).
Keaton, who was in an alcoholic haze during the making of this film, contributes little to the scene. That's sad because, at his prime, Keaton could have elevated the scene above the dull roughhouse antics that made it on screen. Without a doubt, he could have composed an intricate sequence of moves that would have turned this routine into a work of art. Keaton was, after all, one of cinema's most graceful clowns. He could wrangle elegantly with an uncooperative partner, which is evidenced by the changing room scene in The Cameraman or the scene from Spite Marriage in which he lugs his drunken wife to bed.
MGM was determined to force Keaton and Durante together. In this deleted scene from What! No Beer?, the actors find themselves joined together after they get tangled up in the same overcoat.
In The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock introduced a second element to the handcuffs routine: the mismatched pair finding a way to work together and even coming to develop affection for one another.
Handcuffs played a role in the climax of His Girl Friday (1940). The arrest of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is heartily endorsed by Mayor Fred (Clarence Kolb), who observes that these scheming journalists "look kind of natural" in handcuffs.
The ideal handcuffs routine, which was to serve as the prototype for future handcuffs routines, was created by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madeline Davis for the radio show My Favorite Husband. Lucille Ball and Richard Denning, who starred on the show as wackily married couple Liz and George Cooper, were always being put into absurd situations by Carroll and Davis. The handcuffs episode, "Liz and George Handcuffed" (1949), starts out with Liz playing cops and robbers with a neighbor's boy, who fancies himself to be a budding Dick Tracy. The boy snaps handcuffs on Liz and George, after which he reveals that he doesn't have a key. It's too late to call a locksmith, which leaves the couple with no choice but to remain shackled together until they can phone a locksmith in the morning. The highlight of the episode comes as the couple has to figure out a way to sleep together in their encumbered state. The dialogue left it to the listeners to imagine the couple's physical struggles.
In the morning, George has no time to wait for the locksmith as his boss (Gale Gordon) has summoned him to a confidential meeting with an important client. George and his boss come up with the idea to hide Liz behind a sofa during the meeting.
In 1952, Carroll and Davis made alterations to the "Liz and George Get Handcuffed" script to create a new script for I Love Lucy called "The Handcuffs." The changes could not have worked out better. To start, the handcuffs were no longer introduced by a mischievous boy. Instead, Lucy and Ricky's cantankerous ex-vaudevillian landlord introduces the handcuffs as part of an old magic act. This would have an important effect on the routine in the future. Previously, a comedy character had to be implicated in a crime before a police officer could enter the scene and introduce a set of handcuffs. But that limitation no longer existed. Any character could introduce handcuffs if they were nothing more than a prop for a magic trick. Without writers needing to cook up criminal complications, the routine could be transferred to a wide variety of characters and situations.
The bedroom scene remained the highlight of the script. But, now that the routine had to be performed on television, it was necessary to work out the physical actions of a couple handcuffed together. Carroll said, "Madeline and I tied our left and right hands together and we found out that once you have that you can't take your coat off. It won't go past the sleeve. We wouldn't have thought of that unless we had actually done it."
Buster Keaton, who sometimes served as an adviser to Lucy on I Love Lucy, would have no doubt approved of the way that the routine was eventually worked out.
Carroll and Davis made further alterations to the My Favorite Husband script. Tension is always valuable in a sitcom script, which is the reason that George's business meeting became vital to the story. But, unlike George, Ricky was not a bank executive who had to conduct meetings with clients. It was set up instead that Ricky, mambo musician extraordinaire, is due to appear on a television show to promote a new album. He gets the idea to hide Lucy behind a curtain while he talks with the host and performs a musical number. A reworking of the Commedia dell'Arte routine "Lazzo of Hands Behind the Back" comes into play during this scene.
The best change by the writers was to omit a scene from the radio script in which George was forced to accompany Liz to the beauty parlor. George's discomfort with hair rollers and nail polish is not particularly funny.
It has been decades since Ball and Arnaz performed this handcuff business and no one has come along to top them. They established the perfect three-act handcuffs plot.
Act One. Get a disagreeable duo locked together in handcuffs.
Act Two. Put the bound duo into a tricky situation where they need to coordinate their movements.
Act Three. Have the duo find a way to hide their embarrassing predicament at an important event.
The originators of the three-act handcuffs plot never let go of this precious formula. Desilu, the producers of I Love Lucy, returned to the routine for a episode of December Bride ("Handcuffs," 1956). Ball, herself, would later return to routine in a highly rated episode of Here's Lucy ("Lucy Meets the Burtons," 1970).
How is it that so many sitcom writers thought they had the right to make use of this plot? A sitcom writer will feel justified to steal a premise from another writer on the condition that they can come up with a good twist. Lowell Ganz explained this principle in discussing the time that he reworked the Honeymooners IRS episode ("The Worry Wart," 1956) into an episode for The Odd Couple ("The Ides of April," 1973).
Comedy folk are more possessive of their material today, as is evidenced by Roseanne Barr's recent Twitter attack on Three and a Half Men for using one of her old jokes.
The Three Stooges were shameless in using other comedian's material, but the fact remains that the Stooges were often able to take a gag or routine and make it their own. In Blunder Boys (1955), the Stooges attempted to one-up Ball and Arnaz by having three people handcuffed together instead of two. The Stooges' larger-than-life version of the routine, which includes ankle-biting, axe-impaling, vase-breaking, fast-motion photography and exaggerated sound effects, remains to this day unlike any other version of the routine. I am sure that Mr. "Three-Camera-Shoot" Arnaz was sorry that he didn't think to incorporate a rubber leg into his own handcuffs routine.
The handcuffs routine merged with the berth routine in The Honeymooners episode "Unconventional Behavior" (1956). On a train ride to the Raccoon convention, Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Norton (Art Carney) decide to have fun with joke items that Norton has brought along. The duo soon lock themselves together in trick handcuffs, which forces them to sleep together in a berth.
|This example of the old berth routine comes from Laurel and Hardy's Berth Marks (1929).|
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis remained handcuffed together for most of The Defiant Ones (1958). Even though The Defiant Ones is clearly a dramatic film, it is at its core the handcuffs routine. Two opposing individuals are shackled together and must learn to cooperate with one another. The fact that one man is white and the other is black meant that the film had to provide a profound moral lesson in the end. Poitier and Curtis, who were presented as a microcosm of society, were meant to persuade viewers that the racial tensions of America need to end to allow the dawning of a new universal brotherhood. Unfortunately, the handcuffs routine was not powerful enough to accomplish something as epic as that.
In 1961, a little boy again set the routine into motion in the Dennis the Menace episode "The School Play." Mr. Wilson gets handcuffed playing a cowboy game with Dennis.
Again, the show must go on. This time, the show is a school play. Hilarity ensues as Mr. Wilson gets down on his knees to pretend he is one of the pint-sized cast.
The handcuffs routine was perfectly suited to British comedian Eric Sykes, who performed expert handcuffs silliness in a 1962 episode of Sykes and. . . called "Sykes and a Haunting." Eric finds handcuffs in a trunk that once belonged to his uncle, who once made his living as an escape artist. It isn't long before Eric ends up handcuffed to his sister Hattie.
The couple later have trouble when they try to ride the bus. Hattie steps on board the bus first and, before Eric has the chance to follow her, the bus drives off. Eric runs wildly alongside the bus to keep up.
Another routine follows once Eric gets on board the bus.
The episode comes to a clever conclusion. Eric unknowingly triggers a secret release catch on the handcuffs, but he fails to realize at first that his sister and he are free. He walks into the kitchen for a glass of water and is startled when he leaves the kitchen and discovers his sister standing on her own in the living room. Sykes produced a remake of this episode in 1973.
Writers believe they can get away with an overused plot if they can find the slightest way to make the plot seem different. This was the idea of Dobie Gillis writers when they replaced the handcuffs with a "gypsy love link" (nothing more than a Chinese finger trap) in a 1962 episode called "The Beast with Twenty Fingers." Maynard and Mr. Gillis become locked together no differently than their handcuffs forbearers.
Mr. Gillis is panicked because he is scheduled to receive the Grocer of the Year Award at the grocer's convention. In the end, Maynard dresses in drag so that he can pretend to be Mr. Gillis' wife at the convention. To my knowledge, this was the only version of the handcuffs routine that turned midway into a drag routine.
The routine was never more popular than it was in the 1960s.
A 1962 McHale's Navy episode, "Dear Diary," simply used the handcuffs as an excuse for a series of goofy slapstick falls. Don't get me wrong, I like goofy slapstick falls.
Here is a publicity photo of Charlene Holt. This is a person to whom I would love to be handcuffed.
This clip from the 1967 F Troop episode "The Day They Shot Agarn" is yet another sleeping-in-handcuffs scene.
The way that Berry resolves the sleeping dilemma with a nimble body flip is something that I could imagine Keaton doing.
It is not surprising to me that Keaton was a fan of F Troop and enjoyed Berry's physical comedy.
The routine went on hiatus for a few years, but you can't keep a good routine down for long. It was back in full force in the Sanford and Son episode "Chinese Torture" (1977). Fred (Redd Foxx) and Esther (LaWanda Page) are attached together by trick handcuffs.
Fred has a date coming to the house and, rather than call off the date, he convinces Esther to hide behind the couch under a blanket. This recalls the business meeting scene from My Favorite Husband.
Jack doesn't need to appear on a variety show to promote a mambo album or appear as a cowboy in a school play. He has to put on a show of charm and seduction for a hot date known as "Brenda the Blender." Jack shows up at a restaurant for the date and has Chrissy sit behind him at the next table.
The "Hands Behind the Back" routine is played out in a kitchen scene.
"Born to Be Mild" (Family Matters, 1991)
Although the poster for Midnight Run (1988) promised handcuff comedy, Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin are never handcuffed together in the film.
The routine was adopted by children's programs starting with an episode of Hey, Dude ("Ted and Brad Get Handcuffed," 1989). The routine was soon making the rounds on other children's series.
The routine was brought back to the adult world with a 2000 Frasier episode called "To Thine Old Self Be True," in which Fraiser becomes handcuffed to a stripper.
This was tame compared to a 2002 episode of Coupling ("The Freckle, The Key and the Couple Who Weren't") in which a man and woman play around with handcuffs during a kinky sex session.
A new twist to the routine was introduced by a 2001 episode of Lizzie McGuire called "Sibling Bonds." A mother hides the handcuffs key because she believes that having her children locked together will force them to engage in conflict resolution.
The strategy of conflict resolution was carried over to episodes of other children's series, including Even Stevens, Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
"Raiders of the Lost Sausage" (Even Stevens, 2002)
"Cuffs Will Keep Us Together" (Hannah Montana, 2007)
|Kor mak bracelets|
A 2008 Eureka episode, "From Fear to Eternity," involves ex-lovers accidentally locked together at the ankle by an odd glue-spewing device.
The Thing with Two Heads (1972) was crafted as The Defiant Ones with a blaxploitation twist.
By replacing handcuffs with a binding spell, the routine could even be adapted to the fantasy comedy genre.
A 2011 episode of Psychoville, "Hancock," proves that the threat of death can add to the tension of the routine. Mr. Jelly performs at a retirement home and accidentally handcuffs himself to one of the elderly residents, leaving the pair stuck together while on the run from a killer.
Modern feature films still make use of the premise.
Two feuding rock stars get handcuffed together for 24 hours at a music festival in Tonight You're Mine (2011).
A hapless pair is locked together while on the run from gangsters in The Briefcase (2011).
Strangest of all, old comedy tropes are now making their way from sitcoms. . .
. . . to reality shows.
Buster Keaton's Chief Rotten Eagle from Pajama Party (1964) would have fit in well with F Troop's Hekawi tribe. Also, it must have amused Keaton to hear the origin of the tribe's name. Chief Wild Eagle explained, "Tribe travel west, over country and mountains and wild streams, then come big day. . . tribe fall over cliff, that when Hekawi get name. Medicine man say to my ancestor, 'I think we lost. Where the heck are we?'" This is similar to a fan-favorite joke from Keaton's The Boat (1921). Keaton and his family sail off in a houseboat that Keaton has christened The Damifino.
The boat's name pays off at the close of the film when Keaton and his family wash up on a deserted beach in the dark of night. "Where are we?" asks the wife. Keaton replies, "Damn if I know."
A 1909 Lubin comedy, Father's Glue, begins with two mischievous boys spreading glue on a park bench. A man sits on the bench for a few moments and then, when he attempts to leave, he finds that he has become stuck. Glue comedies were common at the time. (This subject is discussed at length in my book The Funny Parts.)
The glue-on-a-chair routine is still being used today. Look at this clip from the 2008 Hannah Montana episode "The Way We Almost Weren't."
A sitcom character could get stuck anywhere -
a chimney (The Addams Family's "Christmas with the Addams Family," 1965),
a window (Cheers' "Ma Always Liked You Best," 1990),
or a kitchen vent (Roseanne's "Roseanne in the Hood," 1995).
Sitcom characters could also get trapped together in a variety of places, including a meat freezer (Click here), a bank vault (The Lucy Show's "Lucy Gets Locked in the Vault," 1963, and Love, American Style's "Love and the Teller's Tale," 1973), a basement (The Odd Couple's "Trapped," 1971, and The Texas Wheelers' "The Twister," 1974), a storage locker (The Bob Newhart Show's "Caged Fury," 1976), a file closet (Maude's "Maude and Chester," 1976), a snowbound car (Taxi's "Scenskies from a Marriage," 1982), a darkroom (Different Strokes' "The Photo Club," 1986), or an elevator. There are two elevator scenarios - the couple who develop respect or affection for one another while trapped together in an elevator (much like the handcuffs routine) and the pregnant woman who causes a commotion by going into labor in an elevator. The former scenario is represented by The Phil Silvers Show's "Bilko's Big Woman Hunt" (1958), Bringing Up Buddy's "The Singer" (1961), The Bill Cosby Show's "The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (1970), WKRP in Cincinnati's "Fire" (1982) and The Nanny's "Oy Vey, You're Gay" (1995). The latter scenario is represented by The Dick Van Dyke Show's "4 1/2" (1964), All In The Family's "The Elevator Story" (1972), Benson's "We Deliver" (1984), Doogie Howser, M.D.'s "C'est la Vinnie" (1990), Saved by the Bell's "Earthquake" (1992), Beverly Hills 90210's "Earthquake Weather" (1995), The Nanny's "The Finale: Part 1" (1999), 7th Heaven's "Paper or Plastic?" (2005) and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody's "Christmas at the Tipton" (2005). You might have noticed that The Nanny used both scenarios at different times. Here are clips from a few of the elevator scenes.
"The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (The Bill Cosby Show, 1970)
"Fire" (WKRP in Cincinnati, 1982)
"Christmas at the Tipton" (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, 2005)
Here is a compilation of clips posted to YouTube by Blue Panda.
A 1967 episode of That Girl, "This Little Piggy Had a Ball," involves Marlo Thomas getting her toe stuck in a bowling ball.
The script, which was written by Arnold Margolin and Jim Parker, was a thinly disguised version of the "toe stuck in a bathtub spout" routine (Click here). Ann (Thomas) tells Donald (Ted Bessell) that she read an article about a man who bowls with his toes. She sticks her toe in the bowling ball to see if she could pull off the same stunt, but her toe gets stuck and she can't get it out.
The episode is also reminiscent of the handcuffs routine in that Ann needs to have the ball removed in time to make an appearance at an awards show.
Margolin fondly remembered this as being one of his favorite scripts. He said, "I always loved the idea of some incongruous physical thing happening. . . Something stuck on somebody always works well. It worked well on Love, American Style a number of times."
Margolin was right about Love, American Style using the "something stuck on somebody" idea on a number of occasions. The writers usually had these sticky crises get in the way of a couple having sex on their wedding night. Take, for example, the episode "Love and the Doorknob" (1969). The groom gets his mouth stuck on a doorknob while trying to disprove the bride's offhanded claim that he had a small mouth.
Monte Markham gets stuck in a medieval chastity belt on his wedding night in "Love and those Poor Crusaders' Wives" (1970).
Newlyweds Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello get stuck together inside a tuba in "Love and the Tuba" (1971).
These routines have a long, rich history in comedy. Take, for instance, Shemp getting a fishbowl stuck on his head in the Three Stooges comedy Hold That Lion! (1947).
Sitcoms regularly made use of this premise. In a 1953 episode of My Friend Irma, Irma finds an ancient battle helmet in an abandoned trunk and manages to get the helmet stuck on her head. Joan Davis gets stuck in a harp on I Married Joan ("Repairs," 1953).
An 1954 episode of Meet Corliss Archer, "Dexter's Masquerade Costume," involves Dexter (Bobby Ellis) getting stuck in a suit of armor costume. The episode ends with Dexter getting pulled out of the suit by a tow truck. Maynard (Bob Denver) gets his hand stuck in a gumball machine on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis ("Move Over, Perry Mason," 1961).
Jim Backus gets stuck inside a rolltop desk in a 1961 episode of The Jim Backus Show called, appropriately, "The Desk." An interesting variation of this routine was used in a 1963 episode of The Joey Bishop Show, "Ellie Gives Joey First Aid." Ellie (Abby Dalton) practices her first aid skills by putting Joey's arm in a cast, but Joey discovers afterwards that he is unable to extract his arm from the cast.
One of my favorite episodes of Leave It to Beaver is "Beaver's Ring" (1958). Fans of the show knew to expect trouble as soon as Aunt Martha gives Beaver a ring and explains its importance as a family heirloom. It isn't long before the ring gets stuck on Beaver's finger. Wally terrifies Beaver when he tells him that the only way to remove the ring is to cut off his finger.
Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the producers/creators of Leave It to Beaver, later revived the ring plot for a 1966 episode of The Munsters called "The Fregosi Emerald." Of course, an episode of The Munsters requires an odd twist. The odd twist in this case is that the ring is cursed.
This aspect of the plot may have been inspired by the Beatles' Help! (1965), which involved a deadly religious cult seeking to bump off Ringo Starr to get back an ancient sacrificial ring that has gotten stuck on Ringo's finger. In either case, it was death to he who wore the ring.
The plotline was more mundane when Lucille Ball got a ring stuck on her finger on an episode of The Lucy Show ("Lucy and the Ring-a-Ding-Ding," 1966). The script involved neither a curse nor assassins. Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) is anxious to remove the ring as it is an anniversary present for his wife.
Lucy's writers went back to the ring routine for a 1970 Here's Lucy episode called "Lucy Meets the Burtons." This time, the ring was Elizabeth Taylor's celebrated 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond ring.
The episode climaxes with comic business borrowed from the handcuffs episode of I Love Lucy.
Another memorable Leave It to Beaver episode, "Price of Fame" (1959), involved Beaver getting his head stuck between the bars of an iron fence.
This is another Leave It to Beaver plot that found its way to The Munsters. The Munsters episode, "Yes, Galen, There is a Herman Monster" (1965), had a simple yet effective twist. This time, the small boy is extracted from the fence by a bar-bending monster. It is, essentially, Herman Munster Meets Beaver Cleaver.
The routine turned up in other series.
"Peeping Tom" (Sykes, 1973)
"Fenced In" (Kenan & Kel, 1998)
Beaver getting his head stuck between the bars of an iron fence is somewhat echoed in the famous scene from A Christmas Story (1983) in which a boy gets his tongue stuck to a cold flagpole.
I have to leave now. I have been working so long on this article that it feels as if my backside has gotten stuck to the chair.
This may have been the dumbest idea for a game show. Here is a description of the series from Game Show Wiki: "Two contestants were placed in separate isolation booths and experiments were conducted to see who had the higher degree of E.S.P." It was supposed to be exciting television for host Vincent Price to hold up a number card and have the contestant guess the number. Who's going to sit and watch that for 30 minutes?
I would consider these comedies a good night's entertainment.
This Sennett comedy has a large cast. The actors pictured in this preview include Chester Conklin, Jimmy Finlayson, Marie Prevost, Charlotte Mineau, Kalla Pasha, Eddie Gribbon and Heinie Conklin.
Let's go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear and revisit a few comedy icons of the past.
Ben Turpin, Heinie Conklin (Charles Lynn) and Marie Prevost
This is an interesting portrait of Billie Ritchie published in Film Fun magazine. It reportedly depicts Ritchie at the time that he was appearing in Karno's "A Night in the Music Hall" sketch, which would mean it was taken some time between 1903 and 1906. If we accept that this portrait was properly identified, then it means the portrait predates the first appearance of Chaplin's Tramp character by several years and it supports Ritchie's claim that he in fact originated the Tramp costume. But the fact is that Ritchie played a fashionably dressed swell in the Karno sketch. The character was both awkwardly drunk and impeccably stylish at the same time. Ritchie most likely wore a tuxedo for the sketch. He did not wear the outfit shown in this photo.
|One Stormy Knight (1922)|
Pokes and Jabs
|Speed Kings (1915)|
|Alone in the City of Sighs and Tears (1915, MinA)|
|The Morning After (1915, Knickerbocker)|
|Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (1916, Vogue)|
I bring you another hodgepodge today. I hope that you enjoy it.
Let us start with the legendary, one-and-only Shemp Howard, who performs the hat mix-up routine in this scene from A Hit with a Miss (1945).
I identified a number of cutaway sets in a recent article, but I have now found a cutaway set that predated all of those other ones. The set was designed by innovative French director Maurice Tourneur for the crime drama The Hand of Peril (1916).
It is always interesting to see a writer try to freshen up an old idea. The man slipping on a banana peel was already an old joke by 1907. So, a writer got the idea to change the joke by replacing the banana peel with the peel from another sort of fruit. The result was a 1907 British film called The Orange Peel, which not surprisingly involved people slipping on a boy's discarded bits of orange peel.
This scene from Adventure Time includes a more imaginative variation of the banana peel gag.
I love these stills from the 1915 film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
The film does not suffer from the CGI bloat of the recent adaptation. Essentially, Wonderland is trees, a fountain, and midgets in Mardi Gras heads.
A good Murphy bed gag will always get a smile out of me.
Here we have a portrait of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Lauder.
I once had a girlfriend who hated silent comedy films because she thought that the exaggerated make-up made the characters look like ghouls. This photo would no doubt support her argument.
That guy looks like something out of Insidious.
This photo of Victor Potel and Wan Duffy isn't much better.
The steely-eyed gunfighter was already a cliché ripe for lampooning when Snub Pollard appeared as a steely-eyed western sheriff in Before the Public (1923).
Now, let's see how Ennio Morricone's music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly works with Before the Public.
The ten-cent Chaplin outfit that was offered in this advertisement consisted of a moustache ("made of real hair"), a gold tooth that could slip over your real tooth, a roll of stage money, an "Ish Ka Bibble" button, and a coin vanishing magic trick ("The Great Chaplin Coin Vanisher").
Other than the moustache, I don't know what any of this has to do with Chaplin. Chaplin's tramp often smiled when his heart was breaking, but he never smiled and showed off a gold tooth. But I suppose Chaplin impersonation contests were big at the time and maybe you could impress the judges by showing them you could make a coin disappear.
Impersonation contests also cropped up around another comedy sensation, Harold Lloyd.
This is an interesting ad, too.
Well, that's it for today. Safe driving, my friends.
I found a 1907 Gaumont Film Company catalog online. This catalog would have been useful when I was writing my recent "Stuck!" article. A number of films included in the catalog are about people getting stuck on something or getting something stuck on them. Take, for instance, A New Toboggan. A man goes tobogganing down a flight of stairs and ends up landing inside a barrel. As a crowd of people gather to investigate the commotion, they find that the man's backside has become stuck inside the barrel.
Then, we have In an Armchair, which involves a man who becomes stuck in a narrow armchair. The man leaves his apartment to get help, but he remains trapped in the chair's tight grip as he tumbles down a flight of stairs.
L'homme aimanté (The Magnetized Man) features a pair of police officers who become magnetized and find themselves stuck together.
The last film in this category is a glue comedy, The Soldier's Helmet. A mischievous boy applies a generous amount of glue to the inside of a soldier's helmet. As expected, this creates a problem for the soldier once he puts on the helmet. The remainder of the plot is explained as follows:
"About to retire, he finds that his helmet is glued to his head and that the united efforts of himself and his companions fail to remove it. Finding that he cannot get it off, he goes to bed with it on. The officer of the watch appears on his tour of inspection and, seeing the soldier sleeping with helmet on, demands the reason, which is given. . . [S]eeing the plight the soldier is in, he orders the guard to remove it but they also fail. Finding all efforts in vain, he orders the man to the hospital. . . [The doctor] is about to operate on the man, who vigorously objects, and as an after-thought the doctor orders his assistant to go out and fetch him a fireman. He orders the man to stand before the hose, which is vigorously played upon the helmet. It becomes soddened and the glue softens. It falls off, to the great relief of the soldier and the eternal glory of the doctor."
I found a non-sticky film in the catalog that I thought was interesting. The film, The Electric Belt, involves medical science gone awry. A wife is determined to help her husband with his lumbago. A doctor assures her that the cure is an electric belt that he has specially designed. The woman promptly buys the belt and sews it into the lining of her husband's coat. As soon as her husband dons the coat, he is transformed from a man who is bent over in pain to a man who is jumping and prancing. He also becomes extremely amorous, kissing every woman that he meets. The police arrest the man for being a public nuisance. He is stripped of his coat before being placed in a jail cell and he now returns to being a sick, bent man. A police sergeant mistakenly grabs the coat from a rack and he no sooner puts it on then he becomes seized with the fidgets and attempts to kiss a woman. When he removes the coat, he becomes calm and normal again. Next, the coat is stolen by a tramp, who upsets a push cart in his attempt to caress the female proprietor. You need to keep in mind that this is just a movie. I would not recommend sticking a fork into an electrical socket to bring yourself to sexual arousal. This is the reason that they always tell you, "Do not try this at home."
This reminds me of something that happened to me several years ago. I ordered this Fast Abs belt that I saw on television. They refer to the belt as an "electronic massager" and claim it can work off fat. Don't believe it. I got the package in the mail. The package was so small and light that I couldn't imagine it had anything inside. But I reached deep down into the box and managed to dig out a few things - a plastic battery case the size of a cigarette lighter, a pair of lithium batteries, a nylon strip with Velcro at either end, a tube of gel, and a nylon buckle lined with foil. The device looked like it cost two cents to make. I foolishly put on the belt even though I had no confidence that it would work. I no sooner installed the batteries then I got the goddamnedest shock of my life! It ends up that's all this device does is shock the person dumb enough to put it on. They explain in the instructions that it delivers an electrical current into your body to stimulate blood and tissue. Yeah, right, it stimulates a whole lot of stuff when you're getting electrocuted. Sorry, my friends, I was not interested. If I was in the mood for some electrical stimulation, I would have paid a dominatrix to attach wires from my toaster to my nipples. I went back to the original ad and didn't see anything about getting juiced.
I have a better product for dieters. I got the inspiration for this product when I had to move furniture into my kitchen in preparation of a carpet cleaning. Having to squeeze past a table and chairs to get to my refrigerator deterred me from eating much food that day. It occurred to me that I could lose a few pounds if I left these items in the kitchen for the next week. I even thought that I might be able to make money by marketing something like this to dieters. I am sure that my kitchen barricade could help more fat people than the Fast Abs belt.
In the meantime, people will continue to laugh at people getting into sticky situations.
There is nothing particularly funny about a bowl of soup. Not the steam. Not the broth. Not the crackers. I had lentil soup the other day and it didn't even make me crack a smile. Yet, soup became a major comic prop in the early days of film.
The myopic maid featured in Nearsighted Mary (1909) spills soup on her employer's head. This was soon to become a familiar gag. At the dawn of film comedy, it was commonplace for clumsy waiters and incompetent servants to spill soup on people. The soup may land on a head (preferably bald), or into a lap, or down a back. A critic for Moving Picture World described a scene from The Rink (1916) in which "soup invades the decollette of a feminine diner."
This was a world in which absurdly long beards hung down into soup bowls. Harold Lloyd ran into this problem in Luke's Late Lunchers (1916). He quickly addressed this diner's vulgar display by tying his beard around his neck.
Often, whether by accident or sabotage, inappropriate ingredients became submerged within the murky depths of a soup pot. Mischievous children poured an excessive amount of pepper into a soup pot in Nora Declares War (1917). A 1914 British comedy (title unknown) featured George Robey hiding an anarchist's bomb in a pot of soup. A housemaid accidentally poured kerosene into soup in a 1910 Powers comedy called Our Housemaid. This business with the kerosene-spiked soup was a time-tested Commedia dell'arte routine that would later be performed on film by both Charlie Chaplin (Shanghaied, 1915) and Buster Keaton (The Timid Young Man, 1935).
During this period, the most ludicrous soup ingredient was introduced in a 1909 Gaumont comedy called In the Consomme. A maid mistakenly drops a sponge into a pot of soup and, without realizing the maid's error, her employer ingests the sponge as part of his meal.
The world became less funny when we stopped laughing at a bowl of soup.
I no sooner posted this article then Jay Brennan, the author of Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Gorilla!, reminded me of this soup routine from You're Darn Tootin' (1928).
It takes comedians with a well-developed sense of timing and a natural gift of expressiveness to make such a simple and subdued routine so funny. How many comedians can get laughs with a common salt shaker? Thanks, Jay!
In real life, the main use for a dummy is to model clothing. But it was different in early films. The dummy held vast potential for the many pranksters and con artists that populated the magical universe of silent film. The dummy was a more versatile device to the pranksters than the whoopee cushion and it was a more important tool of the trade to the con artist than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it must be pointed out that, in this special universe, the dummy possessed greater powers than it had in the real universe. Sometimes, the dummy seemed to have a life of its own.
But that was not even the dummy's greatest power. In these films, their likeness to a man was so compelling that a person could not distinguish one from the other. Otherwise, whether drunk or not, Chaplin could not have possibly believed that this faceless configuration of canvas and sawdust was an actual man.
In the coming decades, other comedians demonstrated their personal performance styles in various encounters with boxing dummies. Roscoe Arbuckle shows himself to have a faster and rougher style than Chaplin in this scene from The Knockout (1914).
An exaggerated version of this routine was performed by Billy Bevan in the 1922 Sennett comedy Gymnasium Jim. With the aid of special effects, the dummy manages to amazingly dodge blows from its opponent and spring up at him when he least expects it.
The Three Stooges did even more poorly ganging up together on a boxing dummy.
Sometimes, whether you were preparing for a boxing match or not, it was just plain old fun to punch a dummy.
The early trick pictures, which had been wonderfully pioneered by Georges Méliès, displayed surreal transitions between the animate figure and the inanimate figure. Take, for instance, a 1902 film by American Mutoscope & Biograph called The Corset Model. Here is how the company describes the plot in their catalog: "The scene opens with a salesman displaying corsets to the buyer of a country store. He calls in a female model and tries a corset on her. While the buyer is looking at the figure, the salesman removes the head and arms and finally shows that instead of legs, she has a wire frame."
I recently saw a funny variation on the man-pretends-to-be-dummy routine in a Sennett comedy, Hooked At The Altar (1926). Ralph Graves pretends to be a dummy outside of a clothing store to elude a police officer out to arrest him. Just then, the police officer becomes distracted by a champion boxer who has come strolling past the shop. The police officer is a big fan and asks the boxer about a match he fought the night before. The boxer, willing to oblige a fan, proceeds to demonstrate his winning punches on the supposed dummy. Graves, who wants more than anything to avoid being arrested, remains still while suffering the boxer's powerful blows.
|Chaplin remains wary of dummies in The Floorwalker (1916).|
This article is not intended to be a comprehensive study of the dummy in film comedy. I already took a close look at this subject in my book The Funny Parts. But I have continued to collect examples of early films in which dummies were used for comic effect. Please allow me to now share those examples with you.
The Linen Draper's Shop (1904, Clarendon)
A saleslady poses as a mannequin to thwart a shoplifter who has been stealing dresses off mannequins.
The Girls and the Burglar (1904, American Mutoscope & Biograph)
Two girls use a dummy to frighten away a burglar.
Mrs. Smithers' Boarding School (1907, American Mutoscope & Biograph)
Mischievous pupils look to scare Mrs. Smithers by putting a dummy in her bedroom. The pupils make a point to situate the dummy under the bed so that its feet are clearly poking out. Just as planned, Mrs. Smithers screams in terror thinking that an intruder is lying in wait for her. The same plot was later used for Elsie's Aunt (1913) and His Wife's Burglar (1914).
Give Me Back My Dummy (1908, Pathé Frères)
On his way to deliver a well-attired dummy, a porter stops at a bar to quench his thirst. A boy comes upon the dummy, which has been left unattended outside of the bar, and decides that it would be fun to switch outfits and take the dummy's place. The porter is somewhat shaky on his legs when he exits the bar. He is bending to lift the dummy when the dummy suddenly socks him in the head and then retreats rapidly down the street. Strangely, the porter is more furious than puzzled that this inanimate figure has mysteriously come to life. He chases after the dummy and, after a long run and several blows and tumbles, he is stopped by a police officer, who demands to know what the excitement is about. This delay is just what the boy needs to again change outfits with the dummy. The boy is concealed in a narrow passage as he watches the befuddled porter take hold of the dummy and continue on his way to the dress shop. The same plot was later used by Italy's Aquila company for a 1909 comedy called La statua vivente (The Animated Dummy). A mischievous person switching places with a dummy to give another person a fright was presented with several variations in early comedy films. (Give Me Back My Dummy was released in France under its original title Rendez-moi mon mannequin.)
Prospective Heirs (1908, Pathé Frères)
Wanting to see how his heirs will react to his death, a rich man fakes his suicide by having his servants dress a dummy in his clothing and hang the dummy from a chandelier in his library. A similar plot turned up in The Receipt for Rent (1912). This time, though, the ruse was related to poverty instead of wealth. A penniless tenant wants his landlady to think he's dead so that she won't try to collect rent money from him. Presumably, this is only a temporary solution to avoid eviction as a landlady has no reason to let a dead man keep a room in her home. (Prospective Heirs was released in France under its original title L'oncle à héritage.)
An Unlucky Acquisition (1909, Eclair)
A man brings home a dummy, which his mother-in-law mistakes for an intruder.
Curing a Jealous Husband (1909, Lubin)
Looking to teach her green-eyed husband a lesson, a wife makes use of a dummy to fool her husband into thinking she is hiding a lover in the closet.
My Friend, Mr. Dummy (1909, Lubin)
Phillip, who has had one too many drinks, invites a dress shop dummy to have a beer with him. The dummy is being led across the street by Phillip when it is struck by a car. The driver is panicked and pays Phillip money to keep quiet about the accident. Later, a servant girl drops a bucket out of a third floor window and the bucket hits the dummy in the head. The servant girl rushes downstairs and, when she sees this lifeless figure sprawled on the ground, she assumes that she has committed murder and faints. The proprietor of the clothing store sees Phillip in possession of the dummy and quickly pursues the man to regain his property. The proprietor is forlorn when he sees that the dummy has been badly battered, but his mood improves when he discovers Phillip's hush money in one of the dummy's pockets.
The Artist's Dummy (1909)
A dummy who is mistaken for a man by busy city folk experiences a series of adventures before it is finally returned to its owner.
A Dummy in Disguise (1910, Gaumont)
As a joke, a man takes the place of a dummy outside of a tailor's shop. Because it's closing time, the proprietor carries his dummies into the shop and locks the door on his way out. Now that he is alone in the shop, the man gets the idea to break into the safe. He pockets every last dollar that he can find, but he can't get the door open to leave. He waits overnight for the proprietor to return and carry him back outside. The thief is sure that he will make a quick escape, but his ruse is exposed and the police arrive to arrest him.
Her Husband's Deception (1910, American Film Manufacturing Company)
A man puts a dummy in his bed to make his wife think he's fast asleep and then climbs out of the window to meet his friends.
Henpecked Bertie Goes Fishing (1911, Lux)
While on a camping trip with his wife, Bertie rigs up a dummy to hold a fishing pole so that it appears he's fishing in the lake when, in truth, he has snuck off to a nearby casino.
Toto and the Dummy (1911, Itala)
Toto is taking apart a dummy when a neighbor glances into his peephole and gets the idea that Toto is dismembering a body. The neighbor activates a fire alarm, which brings the fire department. Assuming Toto's room is on fire, the firemen break down the door and turn their hoses on full force, which causes Toto to be flooded out of his home. (The film was released in Italy under its original title Totò secondo dottor Crippen.)
Mrs. P. Rune's Boarding House (1915, Universal)
A landlady (Gale Henry) believes that she has witnessed her new boarder (Max Asher) stuffing a dead body into a trunk. When the police arrive, they determine that the boarder is a ventriloquist and the only thing that he stuffed into his trunk was his dummy.
The Godmother (1913, Vitagraph)
A group of college boys are expected to provide a chaperone for an upcoming date. One of the boys arranges for his godmother to be their chaperone, but the woman becomes sick at the last minute and has to stay home in bed. The boys, who are desperate, convince a tailor to don a dress and pretend to be the godmother. When the tailor gets tired of posing as a woman, the young men dress up a dummy to look like the godmother.
Married Men (1914, Lubin)
A henpecked husband decides that it is time for him to stand up to his violent, hot-tempered wife. He dresses a boxing dummy in his wife's clothing and practices throwing punches at this fearsome icon. His wife learns of her husband's efforts and switches places with the dummy. Before her husband can lay a blow on her, she lunges at him and beats him mercilessly. The same plot was used later for a 1914 Biograph film called His Loving Spouse.
Izzy and His Rival (1914, Reliance Film Company)
Izzy (Max Davidson) sets up a dummy in a road and, after an automobile runs over the dummy, he substitutes himself for the figure and demands the driver pay him damages.
Cactus Jim's Shop Girl (1915, Selig)
After his marriage proposal is rejected, Cactus Jim (Tom Mix) is so fearful of being ridiculed by his friends that he buys a dummy, takes it home and pretends that it is his bride. The friends soon discover his ruse, but the girl has a change of heart and accepts the marriage proposal.
Decades later, these routines were still being employed by major comedians. In Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Lou Costello doesn't realize that a wooden facsimile of an Indian warrior has been replaced by the real thing.
Dummies became so prevalent in Hollywood that, if you drove down Sunset Boulevard, one was liable to fall out of the sky and land on you. This is something that Glenn Tryon learned in 45 Minutes to Hollywood (1926).
The lesson remains to this day that you should never trust a dummy.