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  • 10/25/13--14:08: The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

  • It has been announced that a collection of "Musty Suffer" comedies will be released on DVD in February, 2014.  It seems to me that a primer on this inimitable comedy character is in order. 

    The actor who portrayed Musty was Harry Watson, Jr.  Watson started out with Ringling's circus.  Later, in vaudeville, he worked briefly as comic relief to sultry singing sensation Anna Held.  For many years, Watson was partnered with George Bickel and Ed Lee Wrothe in an act billed as "Me, Him and I."  George Jean Nathan described the act at length in The Theatre Book of the Year, 1942-1943.  He wrote:
    "Bickel was the Dutch comedian, Watson the tramp, and Wrothe the stooge who stood at a distance silently admiring the twain in wide-eyed wonder.  Bickel had a miniature fiddle which he would laboriously tune up for fully ten minutes and. . . instruct his colleagues to give close heed to his imminent display of virtuosity.  He would thereupon play one or two notes on the fiddle, which, to the despair of his friends, would again require another full ten minutes of tuning up."
    Watson inserted a gratuitous pratfall at every opportunity.   The act was popular enough to receive a Broadway showcase in 1904.

    The trio starred in a second Broadway show, Tom, Dick and Harry, before Wrothe left the act in 1906.  Bickel and Watson remained a team and received featured roles in a number of Ziegfeld Follies shows.  It is Watson's most impressive credit as a stage performer that he was featured in five editions of the Ziegfeld Follies.

    Bickel and Watson
    George Kleine Productions originally intended to feature the Bickel and Watson team in a series, but the plans changed after two films were produced.

    It was decided to give Watson center stage as an absurdly grotesque character called Musty Suffer.  Musty was a clownish tramp who was always looking for work.  Watson, who intended for the character to look as outlandish as possible, came up with a make-up design that included a swollen putty nose and big red lips.  

    Keep Moving (1916)
    The producers of the series boasted that an extraordinary amount of money had been invested to illustrate Musty's misadventures.  Critics found the series to be novel, praising the lack of pie-throwing and police chases.  The surreal nature of the series' humor made it a throwback to the French comedies that had dominated the cinema several years earlier.

    A total of thirty comedies were produced in the series, the official title of which was "The Mishaps of Musty Suffer."  The series was designed as a comedy serial.  Storylines often continued from one release to the next and a number of reoccurring characters made occasional appearances.  Musty's best friends in the series were Willie Work (Bickel) and Dippy Mary (Rosa Gore).

    An interesting fact that turned up in my research is that, soon after the series went into production, filming had to be shut down for seven weeks because Watson became ill and required surgery.  It makes me wonder if it was health issues that caused Watson to retire from show business at an early age.

    First Series

    Cruel and Unusual (March 1, 1916)
    Musty takes a job as a caddy, but his skills at the job prove sadly deficient.  He swats a ball into the dining room of the clubhouse, breaking dinnerware and splattering courses.  An enraged waiter relieves Musty of his club and beats him over the head with it.  Later, Musty seeks treatment at a doctor's office for a stomach ache.  The doctor pounds, kicks and throws about the unfortunate patient to force a hook worm out of his body.  As if this bad enough, the doctor crushes Musty's hand in an X-ray machine. 

    Keep Moving (March 8, 1916)
    Musty gets a job in a grocery store, but he does nothing but fight with the customers and play childish pranks.  A woman becomes infuriated when she catches Musty eating the artificial grapes off her hat and assaults him with apples.  Musty loses his job when he reaches for a sprinkling can suspended from the ceiling and pulls so hard that he brings down the entire ceiling.  Later, Musty visits a self-proclaimed "silent barber," a high-strung individual who wears a gag to protect himself from his customers' germs.  The barber accidentally applies hair restorer to Musty's face, which causes a full beard to sprout within seconds.  Musty has a violent altercation with the barber when he is unable to pay for the barber's services.  Afterwards, Musty proudly displays his new beard at a salon.  But, of course, our suffering hero is not destined to be proud for long.  The beard becomes saturated with gasoline and, when Musty gets too close to an oven fire, the whiskers burst into flames.

    Hold Fast! (March 15, 1916)
    Musty has taken up residence in a mansion while the owners are away.  A band of burglars arrive to pillage the lavish home and they unload a packing crate to carry away their loot.  Musty seeks to avoid the burglars by hiding in the crate, but he ends up getting smothered beneath the burglar's cargo and then he becomes trapped inside when the burglars nail the lid tightly shut.  The burglars discover Musty when they open the crate at their den.  Rather than kill this nuisance, the burglars have Musty entertain them by engaging in a three-round bout with another hobo, who happens to be Willie Work.  After causing problems for the burglars, Musty is put in front of a cannon to be executed, but he stops a number of cannon balls with his chest and later escapes through rubber bars.

    Going Up (March 22, 1916)
    Dippy Mary, the caretaker of a fine mansion, lets Musty enjoy the luxuries of the mansion while her employer is away on vacation.  This film was a forerunner to many tramp-in-a-mansion films, including City Lights (1931) and Trading Places (1983).

    Look Out Below (March 29, 1916)
    Musty and Willie break into a mansion to rob the owners, Señor and Madam Cayenne.  Madam Cayene is not upset when she encounters the burglars as she wants to use these miscreants to get a letter to her lover.  When the husband arrives home suddenly, Musty gets out of sight by hanging out of a window, but Willie pretends to be Madam Cayene's brother from Kokomo and Señor Cayene insists that he join him for a royal lunch.  Willie sits near the window so that he can secretly share tidbits of his lunch with Musty and, when necessary, break walnuts on his partner's hard head.  Later, Musty has difficulty getting a good night's sleep in a crowded boarding house.

    The Lightning Bellhop (1916)
    Musty works as a bellhop at an inn. 

    Bells and Belles (1916)
    Musty's misadventures as a bellhop continue.  The elevator breaks while Musty is struggling to transport a fat man to an upper floor.  The film climaxes with Musty tangling with a trick staircase.

    Out of Order (1916)
    Musty is a jack-of-all-trades at an amusement park.

    Coming Down (May 3, 1916)

    Musty continues to have a variety of misadventures at the amusement park.  Flossie, the ticket-seller, asks Musty to fix a music box, but he only manages to cause the music box to explode.  Musty has fun demonstrating a Hindu mystic's magic handkerchief to easily astounded patrons.

    Musty feels safe to tease the wild man and the lion while they are locked up in their cages, but the pair become so enraged by the teasing that they break out.  Musty is able to lure the escapees back into their cages by offering them their favorite crackers as a treat.  The next scene features the highlight of the film, which finds Musty engaged in a frantic chase on an escalator.  Musty has even greater trouble fleeing his pursuers when someone presses a button that causes the escalator to go into reverse.

    But Musty is not finished with the escalator after the chase is through.  A tough pushes his way into the amusement park without paying.  The tough is climbing the escalator when Musty pulls a cord connected to trick doors at the head of the steps.  The doors open and the tough falls through.  The intertitle card reads, "Coming down."

    This film generated more publicity than any other Musty Suffer comedy.  According to Kliene, it was at great expense that their property department constructed a practical escalator in their Bronx studio.  The studio went into detail about the seven thousand parts that had to be assembled and the amount of power that was required to operate this sort of sizable apparatus.

    Interestingly, Coming Down was released 12 days before The Floorwalker (1916), in which Chaplin was famously chased down an escalator by Eric Campbell. 


    Part of the humor in The Floorwalker scene is that Chaplin is running downwards on an escalator that is moving upwards.  So, no matter how hard Chaplin struggles to get away from Campbell, the escalator is moving him in the opposite direction, threatening to deliver him directly into Campbell's outstretched arms.  This is the same problem that Musty has when his escalator switches into reverse.  Who can explain how these two similar routines came about at the same time?  Chaplin said that the idea for the routine came to him while he was in Manhattan and saw a man slip and skid down an escalator.

    I remember that I once heard about a stage routine that involved a faux escalator (probably comprised of far less than seven thousand parts).  It is not farfetched that many people before would have seen the humor in an inept character stumbling up and down a moving staircase.  But my research did not turn up record of such a routine.  I was only able to find one previous film that used an escalator for comic effect.  The film was a 1907 Gaumont farce called Mother-in-Law at White City.  According to Gaumont's catalog, the mother-in-law of the title "experiences rough handling" while riding the escalator at Chicago's White City Amusement Park. 

    Strictly Private (July 26, 1916)
    Musty, who plans to make money as a cab driver, captures a wild horse to pull his carriage.  The horse causes Musty a great deal of trouble.  In the morning, Musty is appalled to wake up in bed and find the horse sleeping next to him.  Musty has even more problems with a drunk customer.  He struggles to carry the man up a flight of stairs.  When he finally gets the man to the top of the stairs, he pushes him through a door only to find that the door is false and he has hastily dropped the man to the ground below.  Musty scrambles to find the man and then begins again.  He repeats the operation several times, but he finally becomes disgusted and hangs the man on a telegraph pole.  On his way home, Musty's carriage is struck by a speeding car and Musty is catapulted into the air.  The film ends with Musty tangled in tree branches.


    Second Series

    Blow Your Horn (1916)
    Musty uses a wobbly bicycle that he found in a junk yard to become a delivery boy.

    The film consists of several different episodes.  To start, Musty has trouble fitting a pair of long poles through a doorway and solves the problem by using a saw to widen the passage.  Next, Musty becomes embarrassed when a buxom lady goes behind a dressing screen and begins to toss feminine wear over the screen.  But, as it turns out, the woman was simply rummaging through a trunk to find a package that she needs Musty to deliver.

    The final scene was singled out for praise by the Moving Picture World critic.  Musty joins forces with two other delivery boys, Speedy Rush and Inna Hurry, to carry a heavy piece of scantling from a lumberyard.  The critic described the delivery boys forming a "triangular affair" as they rode together with the cumbersome plank of wood.  I suspect from the image below that, in fact, the other delivery boys were dummies and Watson rode a prop bike that combined three frames.

    We will soon know for sure as I am confident that this film will be included on the DVD set.

    Showing Some Speed (1916)
    Musty, who is still working as a delivery boy, carries a stove to a residence.  When he finds that no one is home, he takes it upon himself to deliver the stove through a window.

    While You Wait
    Musty haunts an employment agency for work and ends up with three jobs.  He must act as a maid, butler and gardener at the same home at the same time.  This requires a lot of quick-changing from uniform to uniform.  In the final scene, Musty needs to climb a ladder to wash windows.  When the ladder breaks, he falls through the window and winds up hanging upside down from a window sill high above the ground.  A passerby tries to rescue Musty with a rope, but the rope gets attached to the bumper of a moving car and Musty, his ladder and his would-be rescuer are dragged along at high speed.

    Local Showers (1916)
    Musty goes to the dentist with a toothache.  An office girl attaches Musty to restraints and activates a mechanical apparatus.  The hapless patient is lifted up many floors through a series of trapdoors before he is finally deposited into the dentist's office.

    A Pirate Bold (1916)
    Musty becomes a pirate and goes in search of buried treasure.  While digging for treasure under the city, Musty strikes a water main with a pick axe and is lifted out of a manhole atop a forceful stream of water.

    Outs and Ins (1916)
    Here is a description from the Internet Movie Database: "Musty works in an automat where the customers steal food using slugs and reaching through the vending doors.  Musty smashes them over the head with a mallet, and dumps the bodies down a chute to what appears to be a sausage processor."

    Active Service (1916)
    Musty, who is employed at a service agency, performs many duties from suit-pressing to matchmaking.  The film includes a scene in which Musty struggles to control a vacuum cleaner with powerful suction.

    Partly Cloudy (1916)
    Musty operates a rigged ring toss game at a dime museum.  A man is able to cheat the game by using a very long fake arm.  Musty later fills in as the target in a knife-throwing act.  In the closing scene, Musty is called upon to act as the African Dodger in a ball toss game.  A malicious customer eschews using a ball and, instead, hits Musty in the head with a brick.

    Fore and Aft (1916)
    Musty works on a cruise ship.  When Musty goes fishing, a large fish swallows his bait and proceeds to drag the ship through the ocean at a fearful speed.

    Just Imagination (1916)
    A fairy tramp appears out of nowhere and persuades Musty to visit a pair of doctors who are studying the power of imagination.  A number of weird episodes follow at the doctors' clinic.  Musty is about to eat dinner when the food on the plates mysteriously vanish.  He seizes a coffee pot, which suddenly turns into a live goose.  He sits on a block of ice in his bedroom and imagines going on a sleigh ride.  He has a vision of his old friend, Dippy Mary, attending to a lawn with a comb and brush.  He watches in amazement as a table, chairs and a bed engage joyfully in a waltz and jig.  According to Moving Picture World, the best scene featured Musty playing a game of pool on an imaginary pool table.

    A gap of several months existed between the end of production on the second series and the beginning of production on the third series.  A report was published that Watson was unhappy making films and had abandoned the series to return to the stage.  Watson made  public statement to deny the report.  He stated emphatically that he was in the picture game "for all time."

    The third series proved to be less ambitious and less imaginative than the previous series.  The series now offered strictly conventional fare - Musty milking a cow, Musty hunting ducks, Musty as a clumsy waiter dropping dishes - and the lack of elaborate setpieces suggests that the budget of the series had been drastically reduced.  I need to make it clear, though, that I have come to this conclusion strictly on the basis of the plot summaries provided by trade journals.

    Third series

    The Fried Egg Hero (April 1, 1917)
    Musty gets a job as a waiter.  A customer becomes irritated with Musty's poor service and demands to speak with the manager.  Musty, desperate to keep his job, puts on a disguise and pretends to be the manager. 

    The Soda Jerker (April 8, 1917)
    Musty gets a job as a soda jerk in a drug store.  When Musty helps out mixing prescriptions, he manages to create a chemical reaction that destroys the building. 

    Wet and Dry (April 15, 1917)
    Musty gets a job as a desk clerk at a hotel.  He is surprised to find that a secret doorway behind the mail rack leads to a speakeasy.

    Truly Rural (April 22, 1917)
    Musty gets a job as a farm hand.

    The Ladder of Fame
    (April 29, 1917)
    Musty looks to establish himself in a career so that he can afford to get married.

    Pure and Simple (May 6, 1917)
    Musty, a carpenter's assistant, carves a twin out of wood to help him to get his work done.  Eventually, Musty and his wooden twin upset the carpenter and are tossed out of the shop.  The pair wander the street for a time before crashing a girl's tea party.

    Spliced and Iced (May 13, 1917)
    Musty, a newlywed, is disappointed with the married life.  His lazy wife lays in bed reading while he is forced to operate a foot-powered electric fan to keep her cool.  Even though he does all of the work, he has to eat dog biscuits off the floor while his wife's dog is allowed to occupy a place at the dining room table.    

    Starlight Sleep (May 20, 1917)
    Musty consults a doctor to cure his insomnia.  The doctor's treatment puts Musty into a dream state.  The sleep subject is less than pleased when he imagines himself mixed up with a group of anarchists.

    Musty B. Young (May 27, 1917)
    Musty drinks a youth elixir so that he can get a job as an office boy.  Unfortunately, he drinks too much of the elixir and ends up as a two-year-old boy.  A wealthy woman adopts the orphan child, but his destructive pranks cause the butler to remove him from the palatial estate and dump him into a trash can.

    Musty's Vacation (June 3, 1917)
    Musty goes on vacation in the woods.  He fails in his efforts as a hunter because the animals, which include a bear and a flock of ducks, prove more resourceful than he is.

    Musty is clubbed by a lodging house attendant in Look Out Below.
    Watson did not stand by his vow to stay in the picture game for all time.  He went back to the stage as he soon as he finished filming Musty's Vacation.  His partner, Bickel, remained with George Kleine Productions.  He made a series of six comedies for the company within the next few months.  The Bickel series also made use of surreal comedy.  A Moving Picture World critic described one particular gag as follows: "Bickel drinks a bottle of ink and becomes black in a rising tide of pigment that envelopes his skin.  He returns to his natural color when he is given a glass of milk."


    I do not know which comedies will be included on the DVD release.  I can tell you that, for purely academic reasons, the series entries that I would most like to see are Coming Down, Strictly Private, Blow Your Horn, Showing Some Speed, While You Wait, Just Imagination, Pure and Simple and Musty B. Young.   I am curious to know if Showing Some Speed, in which Musty delivers a stove to a home, has much in common with Laurel & Hardy's The Music Box.  I cannot help but wonder how Watson carrying a drunk man up stairs in Strictly Private compares to Harry Langdon carrying an unconscious woman up stairs in The Strong Man.  I am interested in knowing if the filmmakers devised innovative tricks to make Watson look like a two-year-old boy in Musty B. Young

    Suffice to say, I am eagerly anticipating the release of the DVD.  I have a great deal of admiration for Ben Model, who is producing the DVD, and I hope that he produces many more.

    Marion Davies, Harry Watson Jr. and Holbrook Blinn in Zander the Great (1925).

    Additional Notes
    The Electric House (1922)
    It is well-known that, while filming an escalator scene for The Electric House (1922), Buster Keaton got his foot caught in the escalator and broke his ankle.  It may not be well-known that Chaplin nearly broke his foot while filming the escalator scene for The Floorwalker.  This was reported in an issue of Motography dated May 6, 1916.  The reporter wrote, "While rushing up the moving staircase Charley tripped and nearly lost his balance and his foot was caught between the first and second steps.  But fortunately the shoe was several inches longer than his foot so that the steps closed only on the shoe and not on his foot and resulted in a badly torn shoe."  The lesson of this story is that escalator comedy is dangerous.

    Musty's struggles with a high-powered vacuum cleaner was a stock routine, which I have been able to trace as far back as 1906.  I wrote about several variations of the routine in The Funny Parts.  By coincidence, I just found out about a vacuum cleaner farce that was produced by Gaumont in 1907.  The film, Raising the Wind, involves thieves who steal an immense vacuum cleaner to aid them in their criminal endeavors.  They pass the mouth of the apparatus into a room and suck various bric-a-brac and furniture into the receiving chamber.  The bulk of the plunder becomes too much for the machine to hold and it finally bursts apart, scattering its contents into the street.  The explosion attracts the attention of the police, who promptly arrest the thieves.

     A number of films used this same plot.  Take, for instance, Segundo de Chomón's L'aspirateur (1908).  Click below to see an excerpt from this film.

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    I discovered a curious new wrinkle in relation to the origins of the Musty Suffer series, which is a subject that I discussed in my last article. 

    The George Kleine Company contracted the comedy team Bickel and Watson to star in a series of five-reel feature films.  The first film produced under this arrangement was The Fixer (1915), which was based on a play called "Hello Bill."  It was a standard farce.  Bill Fowler (Watson) runs into a number of problems on his way to marry wealthy widow Isabel Dare (Ruby Hoffman).  Fortunately, Bill is friends with Christopher Cutting (Bickel), who has an exceptional talent for fixing problems.  Using devious means to keep a marriage on track may not have made Bickel and Watson the most endearing characters, but it was worse when the pair went on to star as election fixers in The Politicians (1915).  It is hard to imagine that the team was comfortable making these films, which lacked the vaudeville-style silliness that the performers had perfected in their stage act.  Would Kleine let Bickel and Watson break out of the farce genre?

    Responding to a special invitation from the Kleine company, exhibitors and reviewers arrived at Broadway's Candler Theatre on November 14, 1915 for a trade showing of a five-reel comedy called Keep Moving.  The film was promoted as a yet another Bickel and Watson feature, but those five reels had something very different to offer.  Those who attended the event became the first members of the public to be introduced to a foolish tramp named Musty Suffer.  It must be clarified, though, that the tramp doesn't begin Keep Moving as a tramp and he isn't even called Musty Suffer at first.  He is a prince in the wacky land of Blunderland (we know the place is wacky because the king and queen travel around the throne room on roller skates).  The prince has a fateful encounter with a fairy tramp.  The fairy, as played by Maxfield Moree, is a strange and dilapidated creature.  A writer for Moving Picture World once called Moree "unquestionably one of the skinniest human beings extant," which may be the reason that a reviewer of Keep Moving described the fairy tramp as "cadaverous."  The character was a cross between a hobo clown and a fairy, possessing heavy stubble, baggy pants, a ballet skirt, and a wand with a star at the end.  The fairy agrees to transform the prince into a humble tramp so that he will be free to explore the wide world.  It is now that he adopts the name Musty Suffer and he finds that, as his new name suggests, he must perpetually suffer while learning the harsh ways of the world.  He is accompanied on his journey by a fellow tramp played by Bickel. 

    Candler Theatre
    The feature was never released to the general public, but footage from the film later turned up in the "Mishaps of Musty Suffer" one-reel shorts (particularly Look Out Below, Going Up, Hold Fast! and Keep Moving).  This raises the question if the Musty Suffer character was developed solely for this prince-turned-tramp fable and the producers had no plans originally for a series.  It is conceivable that the preview did not go as well as expected and the Kleine company thought that breaking the feature apart into one-reel segments would be a better way to market it to exhibitors.  This would make perfect sense except for one fact.  The plot of the feature, as described by Motion Picture News, was an incoherent patchwork of episodes.  The program for the preview did not even bother to provide a plot.  It reported, simply, that the story was "adapted from nothing, founded on fancy, and produced with one ambition only - to make you smile."  This deviated greatly from the other two Bickel and Watson features, which laid out intricate (perhaps too intricate) storylines.  Hal Erickson, a critic of the AllRovi website, described the plot well: "Musty drifts from job to job, leaving a trail of comic destruction in his wake."  So, our hero gets into a tangle with a barber in one scene, then he turns up in a boxing match, and then he is trotted out in front of a firing squad.  It seems just as likely that these disparate episodes were designed as stand-alone adventures and then someone got the idea to cobble them together into a feature.  The film's episodic nature did not go unnoticed by the critics at the time.  William Ressman Andrews of the Motion Picture News called the film "a medley of absurd incidents."  Variety's "Fred" described the film as "[lots of bits] threaded together." 

    The Kleine studio, which was located in the Bronx, drew its talent from the New York stage.  The director of Keep Moving, Louis Myll, had no previous experience making films.  Myll had worked for many years as a stage manager for prominent play producers, including Kleine and David Belasco.  The film's leading lady was vaudeville star Cissie Fitzgerald, whose naughty song act earned her the nickname "The Girl with the Wink."  

    Cissie Fitzgerald
    The king was played by Tom Nawn, an Irish sketch comedian who headlined a popular stage act called "Tom Nawn's Polite Vaudeville."  The film also featured a popular husband-and-wife vaudeville team, Dan Crimmins and Rosa Gore.

    Dan Crimmins
    Rosa Gore
    Much about the origin and demise of the Musty Suffer series will likely remain a mystery, but at least most of the films survive.  I am not one to foretell the future, but I am willing to predict that the Musty Suffer DVD will be a big success.  

    (I also want to note that, based on additional research, I have expanded my plot summaries for the series.)

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    It never fails.  I post an article that I believe exhaustively explores a subject, but then I comes across additional information that I wish I could have included in the article.  It is frustrating.  Take, for example, an article that I recently wrote about routines in which a character gets stuck onto something or stuck into something.  Only a week after I posted the article, I found two other routines that fall squarely into this category.

     Gilligan's Island ("Gilligan's Personal Magnetism," 1967)

    Rhoda ("The Date in the Iron Mask," 1978)

    I was amiss not mentioning this scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) in my handcuff routine article.


    I wish that this next clip had come my way before I wrote my firing squad article.  The comedian is Bobby Dunn.  The film is Villa of the Movies (1917).  You will also get to see an early example of a comedian riding a missile through the air.

    This less than funny version of the hat mix-up routine is from the 1972 television film Evil Roy Slade (1972).

    Those people who produce reality videos like to sometimes introduce traditional routines into everyday existence.  This is the human chair routine turned into a Halloween prank.

    Last month, I posted a soup routine performed by Laurel & Hardy.  The following clip shows Jerry Lewis applying his unique talents to the same routine in Cinderfella (1960).

    I have always said that a thin line exists between comedy films and horror films.  Sitcom viewers have laughed many times when a character got locked in a meat freezer, but that same premise can easily be used to elicit fright.  This becomes evident when Alexandra Daddario gets locked in a meat freezer in Bereavement (2010).  Warning: The scene includes a brief display of nudity.

    I have found several new images online in the last couple of months.  I particularly like these illustrations of Billy Reeves.

    Reeves plays a drunken man tangling with a leopard skin rug in The Club Man (1915).

    I wrote in an earlier article that The Club Man was a forerunner of Charlie Chaplin's One A.M. (1916).

    I found three more animated gif files of Buster Keaton.  This includes the graphic that opens this article.  I would like to give credit to the people who created these files but I cannot find appropriate attributions.  One credit indicated that the file was created by Willie McKay, which is the name of Keaton's character in Our Hospitality.

    This is a very curious discovery.  Dhamaal (2007) is a Bollywood remake of the 1963 American comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  A group of goofs is still after a buried cache of money, except now the money is rupees instead of dollars.  The English translation of film's title is, simply, Fun.

    In this clip from the 2011 series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins discusses the ending of Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (2000).

    This is similar to the ending of a classic American comedy film.  Do you know the film that I mean?  Here is a clue.

    Okay, here is the original scene, which is from Laurel & Hardy's Block-Heads (1938).

    I got to see the 1972 Dad's Army episode "Time on My Hands," which featured a tribute to Harold Lloyd's famous clock scene from Safety Last! (1923).

    This is a great scene from the 1922 Hal Roach comedy Loose Change.  In the past, comedians escaped pursuers by pretending to be a mannequin or a statue.  This time, an unsavory gang of bank robbers avoids being detected by the bank president by pretending to be figures in an American history mural.

    Speaking of the mannequin routine, a fast-paced variation of that routine is performed by Snub Pollard in this scene from Fifteen Minutes (1921).

    What makes that scene unique, even more so than its pacing, is the fact that Pollard feels the need to wear an mannequin face to complete his disguise.  I cannot think of a single other time that a comedian had to go that far to make himself look like a mannequin.  It was usually sufficient for the comedian to remain perfectly still as he posed between a pair of mannequins outside of a clothing store.  I have to say that I find a mannequin mask to be creepy.     

    Police corruption scandals made the police unpopular in Northern England at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  A film company located in Northern England, the Lancashire-based Mitchell & Kenyon, capitalized on this sentiment with a series of comedies that made fun of the police.  The most popular installment of this series was Diving Lucy (1903), which is featured in this clip from the BBC documentary The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon.

    These films came several years before Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops.  The premise of Diving Lucy was expanded in later films, including Manual of a Perfect Gentleman (1908) and Funnicus is Tired of Life (1913).     

    I will end this article today with two images of the irrepressible Larry Semon.

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    It is great reading Variety's old Artists' Forum.  This was a outlet for vaudeville performers to gripe about bad reviews and wish damnation upon those performers who had stolen parts of their act.  These are the letters from one random 1919 installment that I happened to come across.

    Chicago, April 21.

    Editor Variety:

    Please pardon calling to your attention an error on page 13 of your last issue of Variety, referring to the "Overseas Revue." The article quotes from Percy Hammond of the Chicago Tribune and reads, "The Overseas Revue is rough, ready, unpretentious and inelegant, and it starts something that it cannot finish," etc.  I have Mr. Hammond's article before me as I preserved it on account of the beautiful way in which he expressed his regard for the artists who helped enliven the wounded heroes in Europe.  It is quite lengthy and the paragraph referring to the attraction in question reads, "The Overseas Revue is rough, ready, unpretentious and inelegant, and it starts nothing that it cannot finish," etc. The error changes Mr. Hammond's pretty compliment into severe criticism.

    Lew Kelly

    Detroit, April 17.

    Editor Variety:

    In Variety April 11 was a letter from Coy and Washburn claiming we had appropriated the idea of their act. Coy and Washburn saw our act, "The Black Ace," yesterday, April 16. Being regulars, they came back and said they were sorry for the accusation.

    From reliable sources, we learned that some of the best lines in our act are being used by Moss and Frye, also LeMarie and Hayes.

    Jack McIntrye
    Peck and McIntyre.

    New York, April 21.

    Editor Variety:

    Having been released just recently from the army, I find that McCree and Ledman are doing the opening of my act in Atlantic City.  I am speaking of the entrance in a baby carriage. I am the originator of this bit and seek protection.

    The above act of which I am writing about is at present playing the Ackerman & Harris circuit.

    Gailand Howard,
    Stevens & Howard.

    New York, April 23.

    Editor Variety:

    I am writing to protest against the Gardiner Trio who are, at present, appearing in "Take It From Me." They are doing, in its entirety, a skating dance which is my creation and which I have been doing for the past fifteen years.  I did it the first time in this country at the Colonial, New York City, in 1915.  Then with Gaby Deslys in "Stop, Look and Listen," also at the Ziegfeld "Midnight Frolic," New York Hippodrome and at Rector's in the first Andre Sherry Revue, where the Gardiners worked simultaneously in the downstairs revue; we dancing in the Ballroom.

    We next went to Chicago with the Andre Sherry Revue, the Gardiners also being in the same show, working with us eight weeks, which gave the Gardiner Trio a chance and ample time to copy my dance in its entirety, even to my mannerisms.

    I protest against such piracy of my material.  I can prove that, besides my dance, other parts of the Gardiner act have been lifted from others, even to the costumes they are using in a certain number.

    I have written a letter of protest to the N. V. A. of which I am a member and I hope that they will help me to protect my material.

    Albert Gloria,
    The Glorias.

    Sadly, all of the acts referenced in these letters have long been forgotten.  Gailand Howard may have gotten big laughs in Atlantic City by rolling onto the stage in a baby carriage, but he did not play a memorable role in the history of theatre entertainment.

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    It's nice to see a modern filmmaker make use of classic gags.  This is one of my favorite classic gags.

    Here that gag was used recently by René Riva in his short film The Butler's Tale.

    You can see the complete film for lots more funny business and an appearance by Jean Darling of Our Gang at

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    Weber and Fields were, without a doubt, the forefathers of Abbott and Costello.  I cannot help but think of Abbott and Costello whenever I read one of Weber and Fields' typical dialogue exchanges.

    Fields - It will be the best thing I ever put your money in.

    Weber - Well, I will say one thing for you.  Whenever you have pushed my money in you have done it good.  It never came back.  Sometimes I have a suspicion when you are around that my money don’t belong to me.

    Fields - What you need is physical torture to reduce yourself — you're too fat. 

    Weber - I don't believe in it.  I bought one of those exercisers, put it in my room, and would you believe me, I gained six pounds in a week.

    Fields - You didn't use it right.

    Weber - Do you have to use it?

    A similar joke turned up in a recent episode of Kirstie.

    That's the problem with exercise equipment.  It's not enough to have it in your home - you have to actually use it!

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  • 12/12/13--16:50: Our Gang Does the Classics
    I watched a few Our Gang comedies the other day and I could not help but notice the gang using  a number of stock routines.  These routines are no doubt familiar to fans of classic comedy.

    Farina employs a Rube Goldberg-style machine to make breakfast in Little Daddy (1931).

    Chubby tries on a variety of hats in Bargain Day (1931).

    Wheezer, Stymie and Shirley Jean perform the "Watt Street?" routine in Bargain Day (1931).

    In A Tough Winter (1930), Stepin Fetchit's inept efforts at plumbing repair causes plumbing lines and gas lines to get mixed up.

    In Love Business (1931), Jackie's mother (May Wallace) unknowingly spills a box of mothballs into a pot of soup.  Miss Crabtree, a guest for dinner, tries to politely eat the horrid tasting mothball soup, but she has finally had enough and pushes away her plate.  She forces an awkward grin and offers a perfect backhanded compliment, "It's a little too rich for me."

    This is off topic, but I have to say that Dorothy DeBorba did the greatest doubletakes.

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  • 12/12/13--18:45: Funny Old Props and Costumes

  •  Too few props from old comedy films are known to exist today.  I cannot say that a comedy film has produced anything as legendary as Sam Spade's Maltese Falcon or Dorothy Gale's Ruby Slippers, but I nonetheless wish more of those funny old props were still around today.

    The Nineteenth Century Gentleman's Hobbyhorse that Buster Keaton had reproduced for Our Hospitality (1923) is presently housed at the National Museum of American History in Washington D. C.

    It interested me to learn recently that this model of bicycle, which was also known as a Pedestrian Curricle or a Dandy-horse, had been popularized in England in 1818 and it was already outdated by the 1830s, which is when the film takes place.  But it doesn't really matter.  I very much share the opinion of the author of the Alpena Tweed and Bike Club website.  He wrote, "Though many people have pointed out that the Dandy-horse would have been rather old fashioned in the 1830s, . . . the thing that amazed me was how much fun Keaton made it look!"  Yes, indeed, Keaton did make it look like a fun little toy.

    Not long ago, Debbie Reynolds consigned to the Profiles in History auction house a number of items from her vast movie memorabilia collection.  These items included a 1918 Ford Model T purportedly used in a film by Laurel & Hardy.  Brian Chanes, a Profiles in History representative, could not say for sure that this was an authentic article.  He explained, “[Y]ou’re not going to find a VIN number or a document proving that the car was used by Laurel & Hardy.  There’s no paper trail leading back to the Hal Roach Studios.”  Still, the buyers who attended the auction must have been convinced that it was for real because, in the end, it sold for $35,000.  Another of Laurel and Hardy's Model T Fords is on exhibit at the Hollywood Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in Miami.  The crushed car from Hog Wild (1930) is on display at The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

    Profiles in History sold many of Reynolds' items at an auction held in June of 2011.  Laurel & Hardy's suits from Jitterbugs (1943) sold for $16,000.

    A top hat and wig that Harpo Marx wore in the 1930s sold for $55,350.

     A bowler that Charlie Chaplin wore in several films sold for $135,300.

    Laurel and Hardy costumes from the 1954 film The Bull Fighters sold for $7,768 at Sotheby's in December, 2002.

    Joe DeRita's widow sold this mallet, which Moe Howard had used as a prop in a number of Three Stooges films.  

    This wolf mask was used in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

    This is the scene.

    The monster's boots from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein has also become a collectible.

    On November 25, TCM acted as the curator of an auction event titled "What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction."  Several costumes from comedy features were presented at the auction.  This includes the following:

    Robert Woolsey costume from Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)
    W.C. Fields' jacket from The Bank Dick (1940)

    Chico Marx's tailcoat from Horse Feathers (1932)
    Harold Lloyd blazer from For Heaven's Sake (1926)

    This original script from Buster Keaton's Spite Marriage (1929) sold for $1,187.

    One interesting item that turned up at the auction was W. C. Fields' joke file.

    Personally, I would most love to own Oliver Hardy's ukulele from Sons of the Desert (1933).  To me, that ukulele is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

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  • 12/12/13--19:12: The Big Baby

  • The optical trick of surrounding an adult actor with oversized furniture and props to make him look like a small child was employed by Roscoe Arbuckle years before it was employed by either Harry Langdon (Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, 1926) or Laurel and Hardy (Brats, 1930).  The effect was used for the prologue of Brewster's Millions (1921), an adaptation of a popular farce novel by George Barr McCutcheon.  The following description of the scene was included in a Film Daily review dated February 6, 1921: "Roscoe Arbuckle is not only a riot as young Brewster, but he makes a bid for the first prize in versatility when he appears as a one year old.  The introduction is immense, for 'Fatty' is shown in a high chair.  He wears a baby bonnet and is shown playing with two pieces of lump sugar which he clumsily handles (infant-like), when suddenly he surprises the audience and delights himself with rolling them, which despite his youth indicates an inborn knowledge of the African game." 

    The stills from this lost film leave no doubt that the filmmakers went a long way with set design and costuming to make Arbuckle look convincing as an infant. 

    However, the question becomes why the comedian would play a shrewd game of dice with sugar cubes when this less than childlike activity posed a risk of shattering the illusion.  What makes Brats so enchanting is the fact that Laurel and Hardy fully commit to their roles as children.   

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  • 12/12/13--19:18: Take my Oyster. . . Please!

  • The oyster stew routine started out as a monologue joke.  A version of the joke was printed in James Melville Janson's 1899 joke collection, Encyclopedia of Comedy: For Professional Entertainers, Social Clubs, Comedians, Lodges and All who are in Search of Humorous Literature.  The joke went as follows, "And they had oyster stew.  It was the worst I ever saw: small, half-starved oysters, and the water they were in was not hot enough to kill them.  They were alive, and the minute I broke the crackers in the stew the oysters came from the bottom and ate the crackers."  Frank Bush, a popular dialect comedian and monologist, used this joke in expanded form during an appearance on the Keeney vaudeville circuit in December, 1915.  A Variety critic noted, "Bush was among those present with a batch of stories, most of them new, but a few, alas, lamentably old.  In the latter class that hapless tale about the restaurant stew in which the oyster ate the crackers was heartlessly paraded.  The funny thing about this last mentioned gag is that the audience laughed uproariously at it." 

    Frank Bush
    It was a funny situation to imagine and it was even funnier when Mack Sennett's special effects team got around to creating a physical oyster that could pop out of a bowl of stew and snatch away a cracker from Billy Bevan.  The rest is comedy history. 
    Dutiful But Dumb (1941) 

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    Sitting down on a chair is a simple process.  A chair is specifically designed with a flat raised surface to allow a person to sit comfortably and take their weight off their feet.  An animal can rest by laying on the ground or cuddling up inside a burrow, but a man is unable to accomplish the simplest task without creating a device to aid him in his efforts.  Unfortunately, these unnatural devices can at times turn on their creators, which comedians are all too happy to demonstrate.  I have no other commentary today.  What else is there to say?  Without further ado, here is a comedian having trouble sitting in a chair.

     Charlie Chaplin in A Day's Pleasure (1919)

    Lupino Lane in Summer Saps (1929)

     Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) 

    Jerry Lewis in The Patsy (1964)

     Jacques Tati in Play Time (1967)

    Film historian Dan North was struck by the Play Time scene's "gleaming floors and comfortless furniture."  These same elements were used again by Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up (1983).

    Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)


    No comedian liked chairs more than Chaplin.

    The Rounders (1914)

    The Rink (1916)

    The Circus (1928)

    Modern Times (1936)

    The Great Dictator (1940)

    I have one last clip.   It is from the Marx Brothers' film that inspired the title of this article.

    Animal Crackers (1930)


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    I watched a dozen episodes of The Outer Limits in one day.  It was a marathon with breaks only for snacks and squirts.  I have to admire the series for its audaciousness.  I mean, I couldn't do anything but laugh at killer moon plants that shoot popcorn and talcum powder.  

    My favorite innovation, though, was a bee-to-human language translator introduced in the episode "Zzzzzz."  Once the machine translates bee-buzz into English, it relays the words out of a speaker box in a high-pitched, Mayor-of-Munchin-City voice.  That is funny stuff. 

    Marianna Hill and Peter Brocco in "I, Robot" (November 14, 1964)
    What makes the series even more enjoyable is the curvy-hipped actresses that share screen time with the robots and the aliens.  I love the fact that, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, television casting directors favored actresses with a Marilyn Monroe type of physique.  I see this a lot in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  The lead actress would be curvy, the actress with a nonspeaking role as a receptionist would be curvy, and the actress who makes a brief appearance walking out of the bank would be curvy.  It was Planet of the Marilyns.  After Marilyn died, these well-rounded actresses gradually disappeared from the television landscape.  I can think of a number of actresses, including Sue Ane Langdon and Emmaline Henry, who survived the transition by quickly slimming down from Monroe size to Jackie Kennedy size.  The Outer Limits captured the last burning embers of television's Marilyn era.

    Here are just a few of The Outer Limits Babes of the Week.

    Salome Jens in "Corpus Earthling" (November 18, 1963)


    Barbara Luna in "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (December 9, 1963)

    Grace Lee Whitney in "Controlled Experiment" (January 13, 1964)


    Joanna Frank in "ZZZZZ" (January 27, 1964)


    Dee Hartford"The Invisibles" (February 3, 1964)

    Janet De Gore in "Second Chance" (March 2, 1964)


    Constance Towers in "The Duplicate Man" (December 19, 1964)

    Elizabeth Perry in "The Brain of Colonel Barham" (January 2, 1965)

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  • 12/13/13--19:16: The Reformed Leland Orser

  • Let's take a look at the most recent work of actor Leland Orser.  First, we have a scene from Touch in which Orser gets shot in the leg.  Ouch!  Orser looks scared and his voice gets tremulous, but he manages to keep his cool.

    Now, we have a scene from Magic City in which Orser plays a ghost who has apparently come to terms with his death.


    The scene ends with Orser calmly striding into the ocean and disappearing below the waves. 


    But Orser was not always so chill.

    I remember when I saw Pearl Harbor in 2001.  It was quintessential Hollywood formula action film.  It was so derivative and predictable that nothing about it left the slightest impression on me.  Well, one scene did leave an impression.  At one point, an injured soldier is rushed into the hospital.  He's had his neck torn open and a nurse has to plug her finger into an artery to stop the guy from bleeding to death.

    I enjoyed the scene not because I have a morbid sense of humor or I find blood or hospitals to be joyous things.  No, not at all.  It's that I recognized the actor who played the soldier.  The actor was Orser, who specialized at time in delivering top-notch hysterics to films.  He did it in Se7en (1995).  He did it in Alien Resurrection (1997).  He did it, now, in Pearl Harbor.  He was clawing at the nurse, he was bugging out his eyes, he was delivering his lines in panicked screech, and he was hyperventilating.  Orser was described by an astute blogger as The Panicky Guy.

    Alien Resurrection (1997)
    It reminds of the days when a character actor could make a good living with a specialty.  For example, a director knew that he could rely upon Billy Gilbert to perform a funny sneezing fit.

    Very Bad Things (1998)
    It's been years since Orser has had one of his freak outs on screen.  I can understand an actor wanting to move on to play other types of roles, but I still cannot help but miss the old panicky Orser.  I hope that he returns some day.

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  • 12/13/13--19:23: Strange Can Be Funny

  • One of the weirdest and funniest scenes in film history occurs within the first thirty minutes of Mulholland Drive (2001).  The scene depicts a business conference at a film studio.  Executives welcome a mysterious visitor.  We don't know who this grim-faced man is, but everyone is treating him as if he's extremely important and they seem terrified of doing anything to displease him.  One executive apologizes to him for the bad espresso he was served on his last visit, but he assures him they have now found "one of the finest espressos" to serve him.  The man takes one sip of the espresso, gags as if he drank arsenic, and vomits up brown liquid into a napkin.  I have no idea what that was all about, but it was outrageous and unexpected and it made me laugh a lot. 

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  • 12/13/13--20:07: Oh!

  •  While in the role of Lizzie MaGuire, Hilary Duff made a habit of squeaking, gasping, squealing or hiccupping the word "Oh!" to express surprise, delight, anger, disappointment, or any number of feelings.  Not the acting range of Meryl Streep, but her little noises became an endearing trademark.  At the time, the It! Girl was the Oh! Girl. 

    When Duff got into the movies, a director got upset to hear her making her cute little squeak.  He explained that she wasn't playing Lizzie MaGuire and she didn't need to make that sound anymore.  She told him that the sound was all her own.  When she acted as Lizzie, she said, she was doing little more than being herself.  The director took time out of the production schedule to get Duff acting lessons.  He had special instructions for her acting coach to get rid of the squeak.  Hollywood likes to turn actors into commodities and they often get rid of those little quirks that make an actor special.  Someone should have reminded the director that Julia Roberts had a good career with her whooping laugh.  What about Jimmy Stewart's stutter, or Humphrey Bogart's twitchy lip, or Clint Eastwood's squinty eyes?  Our flaws are part of what make us individuals. 

    We need more actors with quirks.  I am unable to tell apart many of the leading men working in films today.  It took me years to figure out the difference between Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe.

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    I refuse to read film festivals reviews, which provide overenthusiastic praise for films that won't be available to the general public for a year or more.  A particularly long delay occurred with the release of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 but wasn't released to theatres until 2013.  Critics are so happy to be at a festival, where they are away from their mundane routine and are privileged to see films that us regular folk can't see, and they manage in their euphoria to give films far better critiques than they deserve.  But it's hard to avoid these reviews.  A film is no sooner screened at the Telluride Film Festival then reviews of the film are published by a variety of entertainment news sources.  The same occurs when the film is exhibited at the Toronto International Film Festival, then the New York Film Festival, and then the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  The film finally finds a distributor and the distributor spends months deciding what to do with the film.  How will they market it?  What type of distribution strategy should they employ?  Sometimes, the distributor arranges for reshoots.  Harvey Weinstein expressed great optimism when he purchased the film Happy, Texas (1999), but he then ordered for most of the film to be reshot.  This is not to say that the usual reworking of these films is nearly as drastic as that.  Fox Searchlight was mostly satisfied with Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and, in the end, they did nothing more than change the film's title sequence and pay the licensing fees to juice up the soundtrack with chart-topping tunes (Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat"). 

    Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
    Eventually, the distributor will initiate a limited test release of the film in New York and Los Angeles.  Even more reviews than before make their way into the press.  Most of these films do not earn a wide release, which means that the average entertainment consumer won't get to see the film until it turns up on DVD several months later.  It makes it extremely frustrating if, as it often turns out, the film is not worth the wait.  How many glowing reviews did I read about Ruby Sparks (2012) before I was finally able to see the film for myself and realize that it was nothing more than a dull and pretentious feminist take on Splash (1984)?

    Ruby Sparks (2012)
    So, please, spare me festival reviews.

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  • 12/13/13--20:34: The Bloat of DVD Extras

  • I was once addicted to DVD extras, but that was a long time ago.  I am no longer interested in the director commentaries and the "Making of" documentaries.  It was the beginning of the end when I watched the DVD extras for Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001).  This ultimate collector's edition provided 13 hours of extras, but that included an hour-long documentary to show how stunt men were trained to walk like apes.  I'm thinking, why am I watching this?  It’s not entertainment.  It’s not educational.  Will it better my life if I know how to hunch over and walk bowlegged like a gorilla?  If I were to walk like that in public, people would do whatever it takes to avoid me. 

    Burton provided the DVD with a director commentary track, which was mostly about how uncomfortable he was recording a director commentary track.  A movie was what it was, he said, and it either did or it didn't communicate what it was supposed to communicate.  It was left to the viewer to experience a film from their own personal perspective.  He didn’t want to impose his ideas on viewers and interfere with their interpretation of the story or characters.  But the problem is that I don’t listen to a director’s commentary for a director to be considerate of my personal perspective and keep his mouth clamped perfectly shut. 

    I must admit, though, that Burton did give me a good laugh when he discussed his phobia of chimpanzees. He said that, unlike orangutans or gorillas, chimpanzees are capable of “psycho” behavior.  He was especially disturbed that chimps have been known to get their buddies together to beat another chimp to death.  The jungle, he insisted, must have its share of chimpanzee serial killers.

    I’ve heard before about chimpanzees being testy.  They were always having trouble with chimps while they were making the old Tarzan movies.  Lex Barker, the official Tarzan from 1949 to 1952, once had a chimp bite him in the face for no apparent reason.  This was no nip.  The poor guy had to have half his face stitched up.  And it makes it worse that it was a young chimp that did the nasty deed.  A fully grown adult chimp would have probably tore Barker's head off his shoulders.

    Tarzan and Cheetah estranged.
    Burton’s phobia had an impact on the movie.  The script identified the scary main villain, General Thade, as a gorilla.  But Burton knew that was not authentic and he changed the character to a chimpanzee.  The director couldn't have enjoyed the fact that he needed to use actual chimps for several scenes.  On the set, he observed the complex social interaction the chimps had with trainers and actors.  It unnerved him how the chimps liked to pry open people’s mouths and look inside.  He had General Thade do that in the movie.  It became one of the movie’s stronger moments.  That scene had personal meaning for Burton, which is the reason that it worked.  I don’t think enough of the movie had meaning for him.  It was, when all was said and done, an impersonal big-budget claptrap.  For a Planet of the Apes geek like me, the film was a big disappointment.

    As much as I liked Burton's remarks on chimps, it wasn't enough to make these DVD extras worthwhile.

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  • 12/13/13--20:47: Dead Wrong

  • At one time, Hollywood's artisans worked tirelessly to craft films that made audiences feel good.  To that end, they sometimes made a point to sand down the hard edges in a story.  The good guys won in the end.  The lovable bartender that you thought was shot and killed during the big Western shoot out turns up again with a big smile.  He has his arm in a makeshift sling and he explains that the shot was only a flesh wound.  Today, young people have come to resent this type of drama, which they see as phony and safe, and they have let their feelings be known by sneering at happy endings and throwing their support (and discretionary income) to dramatic works that have a high body count.  The high body count is appropriate to them because, in their mind, nothing can be more truthful and dramatic than death.  But, when all is said and done, that is just another dull and contrived formula.  And, I must add, it is a lot less entertaining than the formula that came before it. 

    I should make it clear that I hate a story that is contrived.  A script becomes contrived when the writer ignores his instincts and interferes with the natural progress of a story and its characters.  That is the biggest sin that a writer could commit.  The next biggest sin for a writer is to create characters that are not rational and authentic.  If a writer has done his job well, the characters that he has established will dictate their own actions, making the only decisions that a person of their nature can make.  When a writer fails to create living, breathing characters or a story that moves under its own power, he is left with a script that is dull and flat.  Too many of the films and television shows that I see today are dull and flat.  Correction, they are dull and flat and bloody.

    Many jaws dropped when kindly old Hershel (Scott Wilson) was decapitated in front of his two daughters on the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.  The same scene had played out on Game of Thrones two years earlier, but it did not make it any less shocking for fans of the series.  These days, television viewers are aware that a regular character in a series can be killed off at any time. They know without a doubt that at least one regular character will die in a season finale.  A showrunner will try to increase the shock value by making the death more brutal than any of the deaths seen on television before.  I offer as proof a scene from the season finale of The Sons of Anarchy.  Biker queen Gemma (Katey Sagal) is furious with her daughter-in-law Tara (Maggie Siff).  She grabs Tara by the hair, shoves her face down in a basin of dirty dish water, and repeatedly plunges a carving fork into the back of her head.  This one-upmanship is taking television down a dark and ugly path.

    It isn't even that the brutality is necessary.  Something deep inside of the human heart makes it impossible for a viewer to ever sufficiently prepare themselves for these deaths.  A viewer will develop affection for a character that they see on their television every week.  It may be that they identify with the character and see them as a good person. It may be that they come to like the actor playing that character.  At some level, the brain does not completely distinguish between a fictional character and an actual loved one who is a part of their life.  This stimuli taps into the same deep-seated primal wound into which all of our grief pours after the death of a loved one. 

    What is really sad is that every one of these tragic deaths is nothing more than a gimmick.  These deaths are only contrived to stimulate Internet chatter, which is a powerful promotional tool. 

    If you are unhappy with this morbid situation, you should blame Nescafé instant coffee.  No, I am not kidding.  Between 1987 and 1993, the Nescafé company produced a series of twelve 45-second commercials that depicted a slow-percolating romance between a charming couple played by Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan.  In 1997, Head was cast as Rupert Giles in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Head was given a prominent role in a first season episode called "I, Robot... You, Jane."  The plot involves a convergence of ancient evil and modern technology.  When a 15th Century book is scanned into a computer, a demon bound by the book is released into the Internet.  Buffy's Scooby Gang needs a more than fair knowledge of computers to remove the demon from its new online home.  It would have been easy for a regular cast member to suddenly reveal computer expertise.  But Joss Whedon, the show's producer, did not favor this sort of spontaneous knowledge.  For the sake of credibility, he introduced a computer teacher into the story.  The teacher was played by a leggy beauty named Robia LaMorte.  Head and LaMorte took to acting flirtatious with one another in their scenes together.  Head turned on the romantic charm that he had perfected in the Nescafé commercials.  With slightly different editing, these scenes could have been converted into a new series of instant coffee commercials.  At any moment, I expected Head to lift up a coffee mug and say, "No woman or demon can resist my coffee."

    Whedon had no intention of making LaMorte a permanent member of the cast, but viewers were taken by the chemistry exhibited between LaMorte and Head.  They wanted LaMorte to stick around as Head's girlfriend.  That's when Whedon got a wicked idea.  He would pretend to add the actress to the cast only to kill her off after a few episodes.  Whedon said that he wanted to make it clear to viewers that no one is safe and "death is final and death is scary."  This strategy managed, in the end, to qualify LaMorte as Victim Zero.  Because LaMorte's death proved to be so thrilling to the show's fans, Whedon got into the habit of killing off regular characters and this had an influence on many other television series that followed - The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Lost, The Shield, 24, Rescue Me, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and The Sons of Anarchy.  And this was because Anthony Stewart Head had learned how to compress his portfolio of seduction moves within 45 seconds of screen time.  Damn you, Nescafé!

    It can be argued that the death trend actually started with The X-FilesThe X-Files' prime mover, Chris Carter, shocked fans when he set it up for Agent Fox Mulder's faithful informant, Deep Throat, to be gunned down by an assassin in the 1994 episode "The Erlenmeyer Flask."  But I do not believe that the death of Deep Throat was calculated in the same way as the death of Long Legs.  Also, it did not seem to directly influence other series.  The many deaths on Whedon's Buffy and Angel series did, without a doubt, have a lasting influence. 

    The simple fact remains, though, that killing off a familiar and sympathetic character to jolt a viewer is not real drama.  Please, get rid of the decapitated fathers and bring back the bartender with the flesh wound.

    Additional Note

    Jean Hagen
    In past decades, sitcom producers were less shy than drama producers about killing off regular characters.  But these premature deaths were not an attempt to grab ratings.  This was something that happened when an actor wanted to leave a series or a producer was desperate to eject an actor from a series.  Jean Hagen, who was unhappy working with Danny Thomas, made a quick departure from Make Room for Daddy in 1956.  It was explained in the series that Hagen's character, Margaret Williams, had died suddenly off-screen.  Similarly, the producers of M.A.S.H. killed off the character of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake when actor McLean Stevenson left the series in 1975.  In 1980, Jean Stapleton made the decision to leave Archie Bunker’s Place because she felt that she had nothing left to bring to her iconic character Edith Bunker.  With great sadness, producer Norman Lear had Edith die off screen from a stroke.  Lear was at least able to take pride in the fact that he had defied a famous line from Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976) that "No one ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house," which suggested the no beloved character on a successful television series ever dies.  In 1989, the writers of Cheers found a funny way to get rid of a reoccurring character.  It was explained in the script that Eddie LeBec, a hockey player, had been crushed beneath a Zamboni ice resurfacer.  The reason for the off-screen death was that Jay Thomas, who played LeBec, had made negative remarks about co-star Rhea Perlman on his radio show.

    Drama producers got up and running with the death thing in 1991, which was a year that saw the demise of series regulars on thirtysomething, L.A. Law (Diana Muldaur's character Rosalind Shays stepped into an empty elevator shaft and plummeted to her death) and Beverly Hills, 90210.  The fact that viewers did not react to these deaths in an unfavorable way likely emboldened death pioneers like Carter and Whedon.

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    Happy Holidays, my friends!

    I am getting ready to leave town to spend the holidays with my family, but I wanted to drop a quick note about  an exciting new website, World Cinema Paradise.  The publisher and editor, Stuart Galbraith IV, promises to provide insightful and entertaining criticism and scholarship on a wide variety of film subjects.  I am please that Stuart has asked me to contribute essays and reviews to the site.  I will mostly write about comedy films, but I will occasionally venture out of my cozy niche.

    My first essay will explore the history of daydreamers in comedy films.  I have written this article in conjunction with the Warner Home Video release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).  I am sure that most of you are familiar with the plot of the film.  A timid man copes with a haranguing mother, a haranguing boss and a haranguing fiancé by daydreaming that he is a heroic figure involved in daring exploits. 

    I thank you all for your support of this blog in the last year.  You have my sincere good wishes for the coming year.

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  • 01/18/14--11:24: Those Funny Brits

  • Let me make a confession.  I am a comedy Anglophile.  But, then, that is an obvious statement coming from a person who loves film comedy from the 1920s, which was a golden age for Anglo comedy.  After all, British blood flowed through the veins of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Lloyd Hamilton, and Lupino Lane.  Plain and simple, those Brits are darn funny.  I continue to be highly entertained by British comedians.  This is obvious statement coming from the person who wrote an enthusiastic review of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013) at World Cinema Paradise.  

    I advise you to navigate through the site for other articles.  The site's publisher and editor, Stuart Galbraith IV, has been working hard to make the site, as its header say, "An Oasis of Cinema Scholarship and Reviewing."  I admire the man for his determination and vision.

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