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  • 06/01/14--08:06: Simulated Scotch

  • A novel comedy routine showed up on theater screens in 1955.  Oddly, the routine was featured in two unrelated films, which happened to be released only two weeks apart.  In You're Never Too Young (1955), Jerry Lewis must hide the fact that he emptied a bottle of Scotch.  His solution is to cleverly mix products from a first aid cabinet to create a concoction that has the taste and color of Scotch. 

    You're Never Too Young (1955)

    In Mister Roberts (1955), Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) has convinced a nurse to go on a date with him by promising to share a rare bottle of Scotch with her.  Unfortunately, the bottle that he expected to use is no longer available.  His friends, Roberts (Henry Fonda) and Doc (William Powell), come to his assistance by creating simulated scotch out of pure alcohol, Coca-Cola, iodine and hair tonic.

    Mister Roberts (1955)

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    Film critic Matthew Dessem recently wrote that Buster Keaton's The Playhouse (1921) is "not particularly beloved today" because it features Keaton performing in blackface for a minstrel act.  Click here for the full article.  A reader, who calls himself Mr. Neutron, expressed doubt about this statement.  He wrote, "[The Playhouse is] still widely regarded as one of Keaton's most dazzling and creative shorts. Yes, the blackface act is disconcerting for a modern audience, but Keaton isn't using it for racist purposes.  Keaton's playhouse is full of the sort of acts one would expect to find in an old-time playhouse, and the blackface is just one of them.  Keaton's reliance on racist stereotypes in films like College is more objectionable, as is the anti-miscegenation gag in Seven Chances, though such material would have raised no eyebrows at the time."  I discuss the race issues of College and Seven Chances in my book The Funny Parts, but it never occurred to me that the minstrel scene in The Playhouse could qualify as racial humor.  It is Keaton using innovative camera tricks so that he can play all nine performers in a traditional minstrel act.  Nothing about the scene directly addresses race.

    Of all the silent film comedians, Charlie Chaplin is one who usually falls under the radar in discussions of black stereotypes in silent comedy films.  Chaplin was well known for his left-wing political views.  He made it clear in his films that he opposed the idea of bullies, whether a street tough, a fascist government or an unfeeling capitalist, victimizing the little guy.  So, then, what did he think about the civil rights of blacks in the United States?  I am sure that, if he was ever asked, he would have expressed his wholehearted support of blacks and other minorities.  The comedian appears to have been respectful of other races in that he didn't generally trade in ethnic humor.  But the fact was that blacks were generally absent from his films.  This sort of exclusion could be considered unfriendly to the black community.  Is it better to have black characters share in the pratfalls and other buffoonery or to render them virtually invisible?

    I can think of only two instances in which a black character turned up in a Chaplin film.  The first time occurred in one of Chaplin's early Keystone comedies, His Favorite Pastime (1914).  It must be taken into consideration that the film was made before the comedian had control of his films.  The film largely represents the Keystone style of the day.  Let's go to the scenes in question.  While visiting a bar, Chaplin has an encounter in the bathroom with a black shoeshine boy.  The role is played by Billy Gilbert, a white actor in blackface.  It wasn't uncommon in 1914 to see a comedian in blackface in a film.  It should be noted, though, that, during this period, blackface entertainers were far more prevalent on the vaudeville stage than the movie screen.  Theater owners gave blackface singers and comedians prominent billing in newspaper ads because, for whatever reason, this was a form of entertainment that their patrons enjoyed.  By comparison, Hollywood went lightly on this form of entertainment.  In His Favorite Pastime, Gilbert manages in his portrayal of the shoeshine boy to slouch and shuffle, which is meant to indicate that the character is lazy.  He is dim-witted, too, based on his dull, slack-jawed expression.  We know that Chaplin's character has drank too much by the fact that he is stumbling around the bar.  In the bathroom, he bumps into a swinging door and loses his hat.  The shoeshine boy retrieves the hat for Chaplin and then grins unctuously in the hope of receiving a tip.  Chaplin glowers blearily at the shoeshine boy, who then makes his interest in a tip more obvious by holding out his hand.  Chaplin becomes so annoyed by this vulgar solicitation that he puts out a match in the shoeshine boy's hand.  Humor can be derived from a service worker annoyingly soliciting a tip without bringing race into it.  The use of this black character is, without question, gratuitous and tasteless.

    Later in the film, Chaplin performs an old stock routine in which a comedian comes up behind a shapely young woman and is shocked to discover that the woman is black.  The woman is played in blackface by a white actress, Helen Carruthers.  This is a more harmless routine, which I have discussed at length in The Funny Parts and previous blog posts.

    To my knowledge, many years passed before another black character appeared in a Chaplin film.  That character was a boxer portrayed by an actual black actor, Victor Alexander, in City Lights (1931).  His appearance is brief.  Chaplin observes Alexander kissing his lucky rabbit's foot before a fight.  Chaplin is respectful towards the man and asks to borrow his rabbit's foot to bring himself luck.  The perception of black people as superstitious was stubborn, lingering in the minds of Hollywood screenwriters long after most other perceptions had been abandoned.  It isn't something that was necessarily wrong or evil.  The idea, simply, was that the black people were spiritual and that spiritual people are more likely to put trust in unseen forces.  The boxer is ready for his fight.  He is vigorous and focused.  He is a much better representative of the black community than the blackface clown who shuffled around the bar bathroom 17 years earlier.  But the payoff of the scene is that the black boxer is dragged back into the locker room unconscious.  Maybe, a lucky rabbit's foot is not all that it's cut out to be.

    I do not find the lucky rabbit's foot gag to be disconcerting or offensive.  Am I wrong?  My family comes from Naples, Italy, and Napolitanos have long had a reputation for being superstitious.  Would it offend me if Chaplin had made the boxer Italian?  No.  Of course, I have to admit that, if the Italian boxer was greasy and was waving around a lucky clove of garlic, I would have a different opinion.  But Chaplin is not out to make the boxer a grotesque figure.  The boxer is just man trying to bring some good luck his way.  I freely admit that I, myself, sometimes pray for good luck.  I prayed today because I learned that one of my Facebook friends had surgery.  Can a rabbit's foot be someone's prayer?  It's a hard question to answer.  The Civil Rights Movement was led by a spiritual man, Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in the power of prayer.  I don't see him as a superstitious fool, but he might not be held in high esteem today if he brandished a rabbit's foot while he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and made his "I Have a Dream" speech.  Of course, King wasn't trying to get laughs.  Comedy is meant to be self-depreciating. 

    My point is that a person should not be quick to dismiss a gag as racist and vile without stopping to consider if the gag unfairly degrades an entire race of people.  Examine the context of the gag before you condemn it.  What is the message?  What is the filmmaker's objective?  The minstrel act in Keaton's The Playhouse is a wonderful example of filmmaking.  It is clear in my mind that it is not racist. 

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    I have discussed the cutaway set in three separate articles, which can be found here, here and here.  I have gotten new information on this topic from an article by A. D. Jameson called "Jerry Lewis’s 'The Ladies Man': The Dollhouse and the Forbidden Room."   I figured that I should gather together my information into one ultimate guide.

    The earliest cutaway set that I could find was designed by innovative French director Maurice Tourneur for the crime drama The Hand of Peril (1916).

    Charley Chase wrote and directed Ship Ahoy (1919), which used the cutaway set to show comedian Billy West being chased around a ship by a sea captain's evil henchmen.

    Buster Keatonstaged his own comic chase in a cutaway set for The High Sign (1921).

    Busby Berkeley came up with this cutaway hotel set for a musical number of Footlight Parade (1933) called "Honeymoon Hotel."

    The courtyard set of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) is not a cutaway set, but it shares many of the qualities of a cutaway set. 


    The elaborate boarding house set that Jerry Lewis created for The Ladies Man (1961), which was used extensively throughout the film, left a lasting impression on viewers. 

    Jean-Luc Godard, a French filmmaker who admired Lewis' work, designed an office set similar to Lewis' boarding house set for Tout va bien (1972).

    Another homage to Lewis' set turned up in Absolute Beginners (1986).  It is also a boarding house.

    Jameson pointed out the similarities of Lewis' boarding house and the restaurant Le Hollandais from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).  Jameson wrote, "Greenaway is cutting between different sets here, but his montage achieves a somewhat similar effect."  Both the restaurant and the boarding house are buildings with many different candy-colored compartments. 

    A series of compartments with flamboyantly diverse designs appear in the 1998 music video for The Smashing Pumpkins'"Ava Adore."  Jameson wrote, "Obviously, the further we get from 1961, the less certain it is that any particular film is directly influenced by The Ladies Man.  Nonetheless, the video that Dom and Nic directed for Smashing Pumpkins’s 'Ava Adore' must count as some kind of descendant."

    Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) features a nightmarish version of Lewis' boarding house.  Methodist missionaries have converted an abandoned brewery into a warren of dark, cramped apartments to house the poor.


    Finally, we have another cutaway ship set from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).

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    A highlight of a 2009 30 Rock episode, "Dealbreakers Talk Show # 0001," was a spoof of high-definition television.  A high-definition camera, which can capture a person's slightest physical flaws, makes Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) look like a crone.

    30 Rock ("Dealbreakers Talk Show # 0001," 2009)

    The routine received much praise from fans and critics after its initial broadcast.

    A similar routine turned up on a 1964 episode of The Jack Benny Show called "How Jack Found Dennis."

     The Jack Benny Show ("How Jack Found Dennis," 1964)

    The poor quality of this clip obscures the quality of Benny's make-up, which was created by Jack Barron.  Barron had previously turned out scary make-up designs for the horror anthology series Thriller.  Here are two examples. 
    "The Cheaters" (1960)

    "The Incredible DokTor Markesan" (1962)

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  • 06/02/14--05:23: Life After Moving

  • I moved last month.  There has never been a funny film about moving because moving is a miserable experience.  Chaplin could have gotten a great deal of pathos out of the subject.  A picture with moving boxes is a picture with tears.  But I am happy to say that I am settled into my new home and busy at work on a new book.

    The title of my new book is I Won't Grow Up!: What Comedy Films Have to Teach Us About Maturity, Responsibility and Masculinity.  I started out my research watching five films: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), Being There (1979) and 10 (1979).  I had no intention of including a silent film comedy in my viewing schedule as I believed that I had fully addressed the important silent film comedies in my previous books.  But I couldn't watch Hail the Conquering Hero without thinking of Buster Keaton's Battling Butler (1926), I couldn't watch Being There without thinking of Harry Langdon's The Strong Man (1926), and I couldn't watch Mister Roberts without thinking of Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918).  I realized that I could not thoroughly examine the films on my schedule without putting them into context with many earlier classics.  This meant that I ended up taking another look at Battling Butler, The Strong Man and Shoulder Arms.  To be honest, though, I have such a great affection for these films that I didn't at all mind watching them again.

    During my study of the new films, I have occasionally found a gag or routine that reminds me of something that I wrote about before.  This happened twice the other day.

    Not long ago, I wrote an article about The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  A principal scene in the film features Leonardo DiCaprio fighting desperately to resist the disabling the effects of Quaaludes.  DiCaprio, who needs to tell a business associate that Federal agents have them under surveillance, struggles to talk coherently on the phone.  No matter how hard he tries, nothing that he says is comprehensible.  It occurred to me as I was watching this scene that I had seen a similar scene in another film.  I wracked my brain, but I couldn't remember the other film, or the actor, or the context of the scene.  It just so happened that, during my latest film study, I found that other scene again.  The film was 10 (1979).  Under the influence of Novocain, Dudley Moore struggles to talk coherently on the phone to his girlfriend (Julie Andrews).  Moore is desperate to make up with his girlfriend, who he insulted the night before with an insensitive comment.  Andrews assumes that a crazy man is at Moore's home and phones the police.


    The next film on my agenda was The Seven Year Itch (1955), which is another film about a middle-aged man obsessed with a beautiful young woman.  This time, I found an early version of the "toe stuck in bathtub spout" routine.  I have included details of the scene in an update on my article "The Toe Stuck in the Bathtub Spout Routine."  Click here for the article.  (I also updated my "Sam and Diane: Delayed Romance Strategy" article.  Click here for the article.)

    The Seven Year Itch's most famous scene, in which a breeze from a subway grate blows up Monroe's skirt, has precedent in a 1901 Edison comedy, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City.

    You know, I just thought of a comedy film about moving that did have a few laughs.  The film, which starred Lupino Lane, was Fool's Luck (1926).  Let me end this blog entry with a clip from that film.  Watch out for a familiar gag at the end.

    Additional Note

    I remembered another old routine that is, in other ways, similar to The Wolf of Wall Street scene.  The routine, which was presented on a 1969 episode of The Carol Burnett Show, featured Tim Conway as a trainee dentist and Harvey Korman as his unfortunate patient.  After accidentally injecting himself in the hand with Novocaine, Conway finds that his hand has gone numb and he can't grip forceps to extract his patient's tooth.  When he tries a second time to inject his patient, his limp hand drops to his side and the needle get stuck in his leg.  Now, he has trouble standing.  He supports his leg on an office chair, which he uses to wheel himself across the office.

    I think that, this morning, I will have a bath rather than a shower.

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  • 06/02/14--05:46: 1979: A Funny Year

  • Film comedy has had exceptionally productive years: 1925 (The Freshman, The Gold Rush and Seven Chances), 1927 (The Kid Brother and The General) and 1933 (Duck Soup and Sons of the Desert).  But the most prolific year for Hollywood comedy surprisingly came years after the passing of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.  The year was 1979.

    In the film industry, the biggest comedy stars of the 1960s were Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon.  But the careers of these actors wound down in the 1970s and the time came for these old masters to pass the torch to a new generation of actors.
    Blazing Saddles had been a phenomenal success in 1974.  It looked as if the film's director and co-writer, Mel Brooks, was destined to inherit the comedy crown.  However, the inspiration of Blazing Saddles proved to be limited and short-lived.  A sprinkling of parody films, including Young Frankenstein (1974), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Murder by Death (1976), The Big Bus (1976) and The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), were released to a mixed response over the next three years.

    A much greater impact was achieved four years after Blazing Saddles by National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).  It's not that Animal House was the only successful comedy of 1978 (three other laughable crowd pleasers of the year were Foul Play, La Cage aux Folles and Up in Smoke), but it was Animal House that created an explosion in popular culture, clearing the way for a new wave of comedy films.  This was the year in which Hollywood learned that they could have a box office hit with a Not Ready for Primetime Player from Saturday Night Live.  Not only did John Belushi become a movie star with Animal House, but Chevy Chase became a movie star with Foul Play.  Let's take a look at the next year.  The number of notable comedies that was produced that year was thirteen.  Here is the list:

    Being There (1979) 
    The In-Laws (1979)
    The Jerk (1979)
    Love at First Bite (1979)
    Manhattan (1979)
    Meatballs (1979)
    Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
    The Muppet Movie (1979)
    1941 (1979)
    Real Life (1979)
    Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
    Starting Over (1979)
    10 (1979)

    That is an impressive group of films.  By sheer volume, no other year can match that record.  Just as remarkable as the quality of the films was their diversity.  This group of films included a sex farce, a dark satire, a musical free-for-all, a relationship comedy, an historical takeoff, a horror parody, and a puppet romp.  Manhattan could not have been more different than MeatballsMonty Python's Life of Brian could not have been more different than The Muppet Movie.

    Saturday Night Live remained the biggest influence this year.  Veterans of the series were featured in six of these comic films, The Jerk (Steve Martin), Meatballs (Bill Murray), Real Life (Albert Brooks), The Muppet Movie (Steve Martin, again), Starting Over (Candice Bergen) and 1941 (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi).  Film historians have often cited the failure of Steven Spielberg's 1941, but the film actually made substantial profits overseas and it has accrued its fair share of fans over the years.

    Except for Brooks, members of Blazing Saddles' creative team had by now moved away from the parody genre.  Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor recently enjoyed great success with the comedy-thriller Silver Streak (1976).  Andrew Bergman, a co-writer of Blazing Saddles, wrote the script for The In-Laws.  Brooks and members of his stock company (Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise and Cloris Leachman) had brief roles in The Muppet Movie.  The parody trend had run its course (although one of the comedy hits of 1979, Love at First Bite, followed the example of Brooks' horror parody Young Frankenstein).

    The following year, the team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker turned out Airplane!, which might seem on the surface to be much like a Brooks film.  The fact is, though, that Brooks' films were significantly different.  Brooks, who professed his love of old-time westerns and horror films, burlesqued these genres with unabashed enthusiasm in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  He also expressed great admiration for Alfred Hitchcock's films, which was his inspiration for High Anxiety (1977).  The fact that these films imitated a serious work in a funny and affectionate way made them parodies.  Brooks learned much about the art of parody while writing for Sid Ceasar, who liked to put a funny twist on celebrated films like From Here to Eternity, The Bicycle Thief and A Streetcar Named Desire Airplane!, though, was not a parody.  It was a spoof, mocking a mediocre film (Zero Hour) and a dubious genre (disaster films).  It is Airplane! that later paved the way for Scary Movie (2000) and its ilk.  There's no need to point out that, in the last few years, these spoofs have gone from bad to worse.

    But let's get back to 1979 and the extraordinary comedy films that came out that year.  So many great comedy talents converged in the film industry at this one particular point in time.  Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Bill Murray were hot new properties.  Dudley Moore expertly crossed over from London to Hollywood.  James L. Brooks made his feature film debut as the writer and producer of Starting Over.  Veterans talents were enjoying career peaks.  Alan Arkin had never been funnier than he was in The In-LawsManhattan was hailed by top critics as Woody Allen's masterpiece.  Peter Sellers' performance as Chance the Gardner in Being There earned the actor his second Best Actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Sellers was still enjoying acclaim for the role when he died on July 24, 1980).

    Animal House ushered in a new golden age of comedy, which would continue to 1989.  It is easy to have nostalgia for this period when you consider the deplorable state that film comedy is in today.  I wretch every time that I see a promo for Neighbors

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    Melodrama is funny.  This is something that is well understood by the satirist.  Melodrama is drama that winds so far around the bend that it meets up with comedy on the opposite side.  An example of melodrama is the torrid beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953), which has inspired many satirists. 

    It might seem like a great idea to make love on a deserted, moon-lit beach while the waves are crashing onto the shore, but it's possible that the sand and surf will do more to inhibit lovemaking than enhance it.  The parodies have let us know that the tide can bring in many effects from the ocean depths, including seaweed (Airplane!, 1980), mermaids (Shrek 2, 2004) and sharks (The Simpsons, "HOMR," 2001), and the ocean spray that one would expect to be refreshing could nearly drown a person (Your Show of Shows, "From Here To Obscurity," 1954).

    Your Show of Shows ("From Here To Obscurity," 1954)

    The Seven Year Itch (1955)


    The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968)

    Airplane! (1980)

    The Nutty Professor (1996)


    The Simpsons ("HOMR," 2001)


    Shrek 2 (2004)


    Chariots of Fire's overly earnest, slow-motion running on the beach scene was parodied by everyone from The Muppets to Mr. Bean.  What did the filmmakers expect?  The beach scene was featured on posters with flatulent taglines, including "Two men chasing dreams of glory!" and "With Wings on their Heels and Hope in their Hearts."  Here are other spoofs of the scene.
    Mr. Mom (1983)

    National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

    Married with Children ("Go for the Old," 1993)

    How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

    Old School (2003)

    Bruce Almighty (2003)

    Madagascar (2005)

    The Middle ("Average Rules," 2010)

    It surprises me that I have never seen a spoof of the sublimely campy climax of Duel in the Sun (1946).  This may be the most extreme example of melodrama that I have ever seen.  Fiery Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) agrees to meet her former lover, Lewt McCanles (Gregory Peck), but she really plans to kill the man to stop him from murdering his kind-hearted brother, Jesse (Joseph Cotten).  She rides out into the desert under a blazing sun.  She travels for days through rocks and cacti.  She is dry and dusty, but she forges on (At one point, she slurps water from a muddy puddle).  Dimitri Tiomkin's music swells.  Tiomkin didn't give as much oomph to the score of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Pearl stops and looks up.  She has finally reached the meeting place.  When Lewt waves to her from a mountain ridge, Pearl hoists her rifle and fires at him.  Lewt is hit and topples over.  Though he is mortally wounded, Lewt manages to raise his rifle and apply deadly aim in a single shot fired at Pearl.  The couple is bleeding to death from the gunshot wounds that each has inflicted on the other, but they cry out lovingly to one another across the distance.  At one point, Lewt pauses in his expressions of love to take another shot at Pearl.  Pearl, determined to reach Lewt before he perishes, drags herself up the craggy mountain and claws her way through the dusty earth.  She barely has any strength left when she makes it to the top.  The two stare into each other's eyes and enter into a passionate embrace, at which point Lewt dies.  Pearl lays herself against Lewt's body before she, herself, dies.  The camera pulls back, revealing the couple in their death cuddle.

    I expect that people who cried at this moment will hate me for not taking the scene seriously, but I could not help but laugh while this odd combination of fervent love scene and bloody shoot-out scene unfolded before my fragile little eyes.  For those who have not seen the film, I just have to say that words cannot describe the complete extent of this silliness, which the filmmakers stretch out for a total of ten minutes.  Trust me, the scene plays out far worse than my description.  It's bad drama, but good comedy.

    The one thing that the Chariots of Fire, From Here to Eternity and Duel in the Sun scene have in common is sand.  I guess, something about sand is funny.  Now, I dare anyone to tell me that my film analysis isn't insightful.

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  • 06/02/14--08:33: "Rock me, ya big bum!"

  • I am happy to report that The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD collection is now available on Amazon

    The title of today's article comes from a funny intertitle that appears in the collection.  I cannot explain the context of the remark as it would spoil a good gag.  But the same words were in my mind as I turned on my DVD player and waited to be excited by this hapless tramp known as Musty Suffer (Harry Watson, Jr.).  Rock me, ya big bum!  I was not disappointed.  The series was, at its best, highly original and entertaining.  Three films stand out in the collection - the farcical While You Wait (1916), the surreal Just Imagination (1916) and the zany Blow Your Horn (1916).

    Blow Your Horn involves Musty's misadventures as a bicycle messenger.  The film includes a dummy routine in which Watson has one dummy attached to him in the front and a second dummy attached to him in the back.  A contemporary puppeteer named The Amazing Christopher has made a living from essentially the same act for the last 28 years.  Wooden rods are extended from the puppeteer's limbs to the limbs of life-size puppets so that, when the puppeteer moves his arms and legs, he moves the puppet's arms and legs as well.  The effect of the set-up is to make it look as if multiple men are moving together in unison.

    Street performers have adopted the act.

    The act has even been used for a television commercial.

    Watson's dummies do not have the same degree of articulation that The Amazing Christopher's puppets have, but that does not make them any less clever or amusing.  Watson and his dummy friends, Speedy Rush and Inna Hurry, are connected by a simple device: an unnaturally elongated pair of shoes that joins the feet of Watson with the feet of the dummies.  I must admit, though, I was disappointed that this trio of bicycle messengers never took to their bicycles together.  I can imagine the trio astride a special tandem bicycle in which three bicycle frames are connected together side by side.

    Another amusing scene from Blow Your Horn has Watson becoming increasingly uneasy when a buxom woman disappears behind a dressing screen and proceeds to toss garments over the top of the screen.  It seems as if the woman is stripping off her clothes in preparation of a wanton lovemaking session, but it is revealed in the end that the woman is simply rummaging through a trunk of clothing in search of a package.  Watson, who is deft in his expressions of discomfort, shows in this rare instance of the series that he could be subtly funny as well as broadly comic.

    I couldn't help but think of Buster Keaton as I watched The Lightning Bell-Hop (1916), the main gags of which are associated with a horse-drawn elevator and a collapsible staircase.  Keaton later operated a horse-drawn elevator in The Bell Boy (1918) and fell victim to a collapsible staircase in The Haunted House (1921). 

    The DVD extras include an excerpt from Hold Fast! (1916) in which Bickel & Watson perform a celebrated boxing routine that they introduced in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1907.  The routine had been so well-received in its initial run that it was held over for the 1908 edition of the Follies.  This time, though, Watson demonstrated his silly jabs and inept footwork opposite Karno veteran Billy Reeves.  It must have pleased Watson that, by the time that the new show debuted, the sketch had not grown the least bit tiresome with Broadway audiences.  A Variety critic singled out the burlesque boxing bout for praise, describing it as "the laughing hit of the piece."  It was an act that remained in demand.  Other comedians, including Will H. Ward and Edward Zoeller, accurately mimicked the action in their own stage shows.  Reeves beat Watson to the punch (pun intended) when he delivered the boxing routine to movie audiences in the 1915 Lubin comedy The Substitute.

    That same year, Reeves and Watson rejoined to perform the routine at a ball hosted by the Lubin Annual Beneficial Association.  Bickel & Watson, the original pugilists, continued to present the act in various engagements.  By the time that Hold Fast! was produced, Watson had been performing the routine on stage for 9 years.  He had managed during this time to refine his fight moves.  Actual boxers use a wide variety of moves, including the slip and turn, the bob and weave, and the block and parry.  They are, in their own way, skilled dancers.  Their exclusive strategies and techniques are fair game for spoofing.  So, Bickel & Watson made the routine about the rhythms of the boxers' movements.  While they circle one another to find an opening for a punch, the boxers inadvertently transition into a waltz, then a jog, then patty cake.  Years later, funny boxing matches would be similarly choreographed by pantomime masters Keaton (Battling Butler, 1926) and Chaplin (City Lights, 1931).  A faint echo of Bickel & Watson's choreography can be detected in the City Lights routine.  Other comedians later made use of comparable moves.

    This is not to say that boxing parodies are always planned out to this extent.  I get the impression that Jerry Lewis' boxing routine in Sailor Beware (1952) is something that was largely improvised.

    In 1917, Watson revived the boxing routine under the title "Young Kid Battling Dugan" for the stage revue "Odds and Ends."  Watson saw no need to break new ground in his return to the theatre and, based on the response to the play, no one seemed to mind.  Variety's Sime Silverman, who saw an early preview of show in Atlantic City, reported that the boxing routine had "not lost its boisterous fun qualities."  The critic generally praised Watson for taking "old comedy ideas" and turning them into "big laughing bit[s]."  Silverman identified as the show's other "old comedy ideas" a sketch in which Watson drills a misfit army detachment and another bit of business in which Watson has difficulty making a phone call from a pay phone.  Silverman described the latter routine as follows: "Watson is a commuter loaded with bundles who wishes to phone his wife he may be delayed for dinner but he cannot secure a connection."  Watson seeks help from a switchboard operator, but he still can't get through to his wife and he expresses his frustration by mistreating the phone.  Critics reported that the routine got the biggest laughs of the show.  The routine was later brought to the movies by Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? (1942).  This version of the routine, known as "Alexander 2222," was performed by the duo for many years and remains appropriately enshrined in the comedy hall of fame.

    It surprised me that Bickel plays only a small role in the series.  Not that the films suffer from Bickel's absence.  Watson receives able support from an appropriately silly troupe that is led by Dan Crimmins, H. H. McCullum and Maxfield Moree.    

    It is a mystery why Watson retired from acting at the age of 50.  Production of the "Musty Suffer" series did have to be shut down at one point because Watson became ill and required surgery.  Health issues are usually a reason for an early retirement.

    In his day, Watson was a popular star on the stage, a fact that cannot be overstated.  The talent that earned him his high status in Broadway and vaudeville revues is apparent in this collection.  Watson deserved better than to have been forgotten for these many years.  It was the dedicated efforts of Ben Model and Steve Massa that have finally made Watson's work available to the public again.  I recommend that you purchase the Musty Suffer DVD to see Watson's work for yourself.  A 48-page DVD companion guide can be purchased separately.  It includes a biography of Watson and a filmography of the "Musty Suffer" series.

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  • 09/12/14--12:05: A Salute to John Cumpson

  • John Cumpson was one of the first American film comedy stars.  He was featured in the "Mr. Jones" series for Biograph from 1908 to 1909 and the "Bumptious" series for Edison from 1910 to 1911.  The actor's career was cut short when he died of pneumonia in 1913.

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    Little did Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford know that, one day, the producers of Weekend at Bernie's (1989) would get an entire film out of this one simple routine. 

    Salt and Pepper (1968)


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  • 09/12/14--12:45: Doubles

  • I wrote in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film about a 1915 Pathé Frères comedy, Max's Double (released originally in France as Le Sosie).  The film involves Max Linder struggling to outdo a lookalike who is trying to take over his life.  A Bioscope critic thought that the plot was so chilling that it was justified to describe the film as "a dramatic farce."  It is not surprising that the doppelganger usurper has gone through a dark and disturbing history in the horror genre (See 1913's The Student of Prague or 1970's The ManWho Haunted Himself).  But the slyly funny elements of Max's Double can be traced decades earlier to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella The Double.  A new film adaptation of The Double, which was directed by comedian Richard Ayoade, was recently released on DVD.

    The plot of Enemy (2014) also includes elements of The Double.

    The ManWho Haunted Himself was adapted from a 1957 novel by Anthony Armstrong.

    "The Strange Case of Mr Pelham" was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that originally aired December 4, 1955.

    Fans of The Playhouse (1921) and Being John Malkovich (1999) should also be interested to know that the idea of a man being plagued by multiple clones is something that also turned up in The Double.  The book's protagonist, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, is finally pushed over the edge when further doubles show up at a party.  Dostoyevsky wrote, "[I]t seemed to him that an infinite multitude, an unending series of precisely similar Golyadkins were noisily bursting in at every door of the room. . ."

    A bit of housekeeping is necessary today.  I have added brief footnotes to four previous articles.

    A more extensive update is provided for the following article:

    A clip of Max Linder performing a popular handshake routine was added to the following article:

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  • 09/12/14--13:05: Baby Doll Abuse Part 3

  • I have come to the conclusion that a comedian tossing around a faux baby is a British thing.  I wrote about this subject twice before.  Click here and here for those articles. 

    An unidentified British comedy film was described in the 1938 National Film Library Catalogue as follows: "A mischievous newsboy changes the babies in two prams outside a shop.  A man comes out and wheels one pram away.  A woman comes out to the other, discovers her loss, and chases the man.  A policeman joins in the chase.  The man is momentarily caught and in the altercation which follows.  The policeman finds himself left with the baby.  He throws it over a wall, but it bounces back into his arms." 

    This is similar to a sketch from the BBC comedy show Harry Hill's Fruit Fancies (1994).

    A particularly outrageous example of baby doll abuse occurred in a sketch from another BBC series, The Big Train (1998).

    This scene from Ernst Lubitsch's The Oyster Princess (1919) is similar to the famous baby doll scene from I Love Lucy ("Pregnant Women are Unpredictable," 1952).  


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  • 09/12/14--13:45: Stuck Again!
  • Alan Bunce and Peg Lynch, Ethel and Albert (1953)
    Yes, I have found more "stuck" routines!  (See my earlier article at this link.)

    Ethel and Albert was a television series about an amiable married couple, Ethel and Albert Arbuckle, who lived in the small town of Sandy Harbor.  Radio historian Gerald Nachman called the show "insightful and realistic," but it could also be silly at times.  This was the case in an episode that aired on October 31, 1953.  Albert (Alan Bunce) sticks a pumpkin over his head as a Halloween prank, but the joke ceases to be funny when Albert finds that he is unable to remove the pumpkin. 

    The strange and inept Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) gets a holiday turkey stuck on his head in a 1992 Christmas special titled "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean." 

    In an episode of The Middle ("Get Your Business Done," 2012), Patricia Heaton gets her arm stuck in a blood pressure machine. 

    A 1966 Gilligan's Island episode, "The Friendly Physician," features the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.) getting stuck in stockades. 

    Here is the full clip for those who haven't received their fill of madcap humor from the screencaps.

    The handcuffs routine, which I discussed at length in a previous article, is a subgenre of the "stuck" routine.  I have come across two more examples of the handcuffs routine.  Louise Fazenda and Clyde Cook accidentally become handcuffed together in A Sailor's Sweetheart (1927).  The actors, who play respectively an old maid teacher and an old sailor, are an unlikely pair, but it creates further disharmony when Fazenda consumes too much alcohol and loses her inhibitions.  The sailor becomes desperate to cut himself loose from his increasingly unruly companion. 

    The Three Stooges' version of the handcuff routine was recreated in The Hangover (2009).

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  • 09/12/14--14:36: Early Max

  • My favorite resource for information on silent films is The Moving Picture World.  The other day, I was skimming through early issues of the magazine when I came across reviews and summaries for the pioneering work of a talented newcomer named Max Linder.  Now, I need to point out that Linder's name was not emblazoned in ad leaders or noted in bold typeface in review headlines.  It was standard practice at the time for a film actor to go uncredited for his efforts.  This meant that the magazine's writers never knew Linder by name.  A critic who wished to praise Linder for his performance could only refer to him as "the Pathé comic" or "the Pathé funny man."  By 1910, this would change.  Evidence of the change can be found in an issue of Variety dated June 1, 1910.  A columnist for Variety's London Notes reported, "[S]everal of the London picture places are advertising certain pictures with the names of the players."  As incredible as this may seem now, this was major news at the time.  The writer specifically noted that Linder, "probably the best known of the picture actors," was one of the actors receiving star billing at these theaters.

    Of course, it could be wrong to assume that a person today would be astounded to see a movie poster without the stars' names prominently featured.   CGI spectacles have replaced movie star vehicles, which means that actor names are barely visible in many of today's movie posters.  For all of the acclaim that Bryan Cranston has received as an actor, he is not going to get prominent billing next to Godzilla.

    Compare this to promotion for an older film, The Patriot (2000).  Although the film depicted epic, real-life battles of the American Revolutionary War, it was the name and likeness of star Mel Gibson that dominated the poster.

    Movie star poster with star billing

    CGI poster without star billing

    In my perusal of Moving Picture World, I became interested in the summaries of three Linder comedies.  The stories were not the sort found in Linder's most celebrated work.  The comedian, who was at his best playing a dapper boulevardier, is miscast as a workman in one film.  In the other two films, the comedy sometimes depends more on camera tricks than on the clever actor himself.  The most appropriate vehicle is Tormented by his Mother-in-law, which finds Linder obsessing over domestic woes.  Understandably, Linder was still refining his style of comedy at the time.     

    The action in these films, as described, was nonetheless amusing.  Let us now go through complete summaries of the action.

    A Glorious Start (1907)

    Max looks forward to a carefree flight in a balloon.  Unfortunately, he fails to pull the grapnel into the basket.  The grapnel, which drags along beneath the balloon, catches onto a police officer's coat, carries the officer into the air, and eventually dumps him into a canal.  It then tears off the roof of a building, panicking the building's occupants.  But this is just the beginning of the havoc.  The grapnel latches onto a newspaper kiosk, then a doghouse, then a baby carriage.  One by one, the items and their respective occupants are dropped to the ground.  The people below are frightened when the kiosk and the doghouse suddenly drop out of the sky and burst into pieces.  Eventually, the balloon becomes deflated and gets caught in a treetop.  An angry mob awaits Max as he climbs out of the tree.  This is the type of mass destruction comedy that would become a specialty of André Deed and Marcel Perez.  Perez in fact reworked the plot of A Glorious Start twice - first in 1910 with Tweedledum's Aeronautical Adventure (released in France as Robinetappassionato pel dirigibile) and then in 1911 with Tweedledum, Aviator (released in France as Robinet aviatore).  A print of A Glorious Start (under its original French title Les débuts d'un aéronaute) is being held in the Lobster Films archive. 

    The Hanging Lamp (1908)

    This is an early iteration of the clumsy workman comedy.  A homeowner hires Max to install a heavy brass lamp in the ceiling of his living room.  In the apartment above, a gentlemen has trouble putting on his boots because his oversized stomach is preventing him from bending forward in his chair.  He sits on the floor to make the task easier, but it is just at this moment that Max drills a hole into the ceiling.  The drill bores straight into the man's backside, causing the man to let out a terrible cry.  The man tries to scramble to his feet, but he finds it impossible to break free from the drill.  A Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[The drill] gnaws at his vitals like a hungry wolf, and won't let go of his struggling prey."  The homeowner, who has heard his neighbor's cries, rescues the neighbor and tosses Max into the street.  [The film was released in France as La suspension.]

    Tormented by his Mother-in-Law (1908)

    Max imagines his hated mother-in-law wherever he goes.  At a restaurant, he sees the woman in a bottle of soda.  He becomes so agitated that he accidentally spills the soda on other patrons and gets ejected from the restaurant.  He then sees his mother-in-law in a car mirror and shatters the mirror into pieces.  He is at his wits' end when a woman on a park bench suddenly transforms into his mother-in-law.  In the end, Max has to be committed to an insane asylum.  [The film was released in France as L'obsession de la belle-mère.]

    I also came across a few non-Linder curios that were produced during the 1909-1916 period.

    The Old Lord of Ventnor (1909, Kliene)

    A lord orders his wife to be beheaded for dancing with the peasants.  The clever wife uses a dummy's head to fake her execution. 

    Cat in the Pot (1909)

    This European comedy, distributed in the United States by the Chicago Film Exchange, is somewhat gruesome.  At a farm house, a starving tramp removes a boiling chicken from a soup pot and replaces it with the farmer's pet cat.  The farm hands realize that something is amiss as soon as they taste the bitter soup.  The men finally expose the tramp's deception when they reach inside the pot and pull out the bedraggled corpse of the cat.

    Snowball (1909, Itala)

    A group of boys hurl a barrage of snowballs at a homely, long-haired violinist.  The snowball fight quickly escalates.  The film ends with the violinist being rolled inside a huge snowball to the front door of his home.

    The Ghost (1909, Eclair)

    A drunk man gets tangled up in his bed sheets and, while trying to free himself, he falls down a flight of stairs and tumbles out into the street.  It isn't long before the ghostly appearance of the shrouded man is terrifying passersby and causing a widespread panic in the neighborhood.

    House Full of Agreeables (1909, Aquila)

    A man moves into an apartment which the owner has advertised as quiet, but his neighbors' quarreling and playing of musical instruments create a sufficient din to drive the new tenant from his rooms.

    Save Us from Our Friends (1910, Pathé Frères)

    A newlywed couple is preparing for their honeymoon night when the groom's best man enlists the aid of other wedding guests to play pranks on the blissful pair.  The guests find it amusing to throw cabbage down the chimney and stick a hose into the window to spray cold water at the couple.

    When We Called the Plumber In (1910, Clarendon)

    A plumber and his assistant manage through their clumsy efforts to flood a family's home.  The highlight of the film occurs when the plumber cracks the water main under the floor.  He attempts to plug the spurting leak by moving a bed on top of it, but the jet is so powerful that it lifts the bed high into the air.

    From what I could determine, this film initiated a longstanding trend of comic plumbers demolishing homes.  Similar comedies, including A Fair Exchange (1910, Essanay) and The Plumber (1911, Selig), followed soon after.

    For Professional Services
    (1912, Edison)

    Tom (William Wadsworth) comes up with a gimmick to meet Alice (Cora Williams), a pretty female doctor.  He attaches a dummy's arm to his shoulder so that he can pretend that his arm has been broken and needs to be set.  A similar routine turns up in Jewish Prudence (1927), in which Johnny Fox uses a fake leg to make insurance investigators believe that his leg was paralyzed in a trolley car accident. 

    Funnicus Has an Idea (1913, Eclair)

    Funnicus and Tortillard watch through a window as a maid inside prepares a hearty meal.  Funnicus figures to frighten away the maid so that they can steal the meal for themselves.  The two men rob a pair of balloons from a toy merchant and draw grotesque faces on them.  Then, they deftly fasten the balloons to their collars and tuck their heads under their coats.  As expected, the maid is alarmed to see these strange balloon-head beings and runs to find the police.  Before the maid can return, the pair make off with the coveted meal.  The film was originally released in France under the title Gavroche forte tête.  The film's star, Paul Bertho, was featured in many comedies for Lux and Éclair from 1911 to 1914.

    Funnicus Invests His Savings (1913)

    Softy's Little Way (1913, Eclair)

    Softy is knocked unconscious when a box falls out of an upper window and hits him in the head.  Softy finds when he regains consciousness that he cannot resist spinning around in circles.  An eminent surgeon opens Softy's injured cranium and extracts a spinning top that entered his skull when the box struck.  The surgery ends successfully, restoring Softy to his normal state. 

    Blood Tells (1916, Ideal)

    A blood transfusion from a burglar transforms a purity league chairman (George Robey) into a rake.

    You can read more about Monsieur Linder and early film comedy in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film

    Here are a few photos that I found in The Moving Picture World. 

    This is a photo of Augustus Carney, who was leading film comedian from 1910 to 1914.
    Alkali Ike's Motorcycle (1912)

    Madge Evans was a busy child actress in the silent era.

    In the 1930s, the actress had no problem transitioning into adult roles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  She co-starred opposite several popular leading men, including Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney and Clark Gable.

    This ad for The Stage Child (1911, Thanhouser) is proof that the controversy of child actors goes back more than a hundred years.

    Lige Conley's antics got more than their fair share of attention from the press.

    This is Chaplin imitator Ray Hughes in In and Out (1918).

    I have no idea where this production still came from.

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    Marcel Perez
    Carl H. Claudy, a writer with The Moving Picture World, expressed open disgust of foreign comedies in a 1911 article, "Foibles of the Photoplay."  Claudy said that the films of André Deed showed no "standard or class."  He described the work of Marcel Perez as "slush."  He was particularly upset by a recent Perez comedy called Tweedledum'sApril Fool Joke (originally released in Italy as Pesce d'aprile di Robinet).  He accused the film of being "horse play of the childish order."  In the film, Perez plays a do-nothing son.  His father becomes so resentful of the young man that he cuts off his funds and kicks him out of the house.  Out of spite, the son places an ad in the local newspaper to notify the public that his father will provide food and shelter to vagrants.  This, of course, causes vagrants to swarm to his parents' home.  "So," wrote Claudy, "[paupers] ransack the house, tear it to pieces, [and] get gloriously drunk."  In the final moments of the film, Perez strolls into the home with a sign that reads "April Fool."  He is joined by his parents and the vagrants in a hearty laugh.  The film ends.

    It undoubtedly rankled Claudy that the main character of the film was a "very devil of a fellow," but the critic expressed even greater dissatisfaction over the unbelievability of the plot.  Claudy, who had worked for newspapers, couldn't imagine an editor printing an ad that summoned the community's poor to a soiree at a private residence.  He also had to shake his head in disbelief to see the parents laughing hilariously after their home has been destroyed.

    Marcel Perez in Tweedledum and Friscot Wager for a Wife (1913, Ambrosio)
    Claudy asserted that, compared to foreign film producers, American film producers possessed humor and wit on "a far higher plane."  He offered as proof a recent Edison comedy called Department Store (1911), which featured a sympathetic character and a realistic situation.  He said that the audience "laughed, applauded and understood."  He maintained that the worst American comedies (specifically, Essanay's "Hank and Lank" series) were a "few degrees" better than the best foreign comedies.

    Hank and Lank
    A fair-minded person could not possibly consider Hank and Lank less devilish than Perez's waggish son.  Hank and Lank, as played by Victor Potel and Augustus Carney, are lazy tramps forever on the lookout for a scheme to cheat people out of money.  This is a still from They Dude Up Some (1910), in which the tramps pretend to fall down an open manhole so that they can collect payment for their scrapes and bruises.

    In Blind Men (1910), the tramps pretend to be blind as a way to solicit public charity.  The series producer, G. M. Anderson, assured exhibitors from the start that the series would be wholesome fare.  He said, "[G]reat care will be exercised to keep the exaction of the story away from the slapstick variety of comedy.  Each story of the escapades of Hank and Lank will be legitimate in its way, and the producing of each will aim at giving point to the humor of a situation without resorting to horseplay or vulgarity."  So, maybe, the absence of violence and adultery is all that it takes to make a comedy wholesome.

    Other American critics shared Claudy's view, reacting more kindly to the gentle, relatable work of Vitagraph's John Bunny than the wild and far out comedy that was imported from Europe.  It is hard to imagine that someone could be offended by one of Max Linder's boulevard farces.  But let's look at the opening scene from the 1910 comedy Max is Absent Minded (released in France as Max est distrait).  The scene introduces Max at breakfast.  Because he is preoccupied reading a newspaper, he pours coffee into his top hat.  It is a simple gag.  It is a gag that likely made viewers laugh.  But a Chicago-based critic for The Nickelodeon wrote, "Max is a bit disgusting in this film, where he pours coffee into his silk hat and then drinks it."  Presumably, it was the fact that Max drank the milk that pushed the critic over the edge.

    A 1910 Gaumont comedy, A Dummy in Disguise, also offended a critic of The Nickelodeon.  The critic complained, "[T]he piece drops to the level of helter-skelter farce, with everybody hitting somebody else; and the final picture is one of those inexcusable bits of vulgarity, where an enlarged head is thrown upon the scene, the actor twitching and mouthing, and screwing up his face in an effort to be comical.  Why do the French, who are the very soul of wit, allow such disgusting horse-play?"

    This could have largely been a case of national loyalty.  It would make sense in this context for a critic to favor homegrown product and hold resentment for foreign product that had dominated the market for years.  American film companies sporadically produced comedies during the early years of film production.  Essanay finally established a permanent comedy unit in 1907.  Other companies eventually followed their example - Biograph and Vitagraph in 1909, Edison in 1910, and Kalem in 1912.  Before 1909, the demand for comedy in the marketplace was mostly satisfied by European companies, including Gaumont, Williamson Kinematograph, Pathé Frères, George Albert Smith Films, Lumière, Robert W. Paul, Hepworth, Warwick, Lux, Itala, Aquila and Ambrosio.

    Marcel Perez in Tweedledum on His First Bicycle (1910)
    Claudy cannot be faulted for preferring likeable protagonists.  I, myself, get little pleasure from the comedy anti-heroes that populate films and television series today.  It can make a film more satisfying when a character responds to a dilemma with genuine emotion rather than mass destruction.  I also complain often about the overuse of CGI, which is often more important today than characters and story.  But silent film comedy was artful in its wild, fantastic and often destructive action.  American film comedy would have never risen to its great heights if it had never broken free of John Bunny's drawing room.

    Helen Costello and John Bunny in Mr. Bolter's Niece (1913)
    Another critic with The Moving Picture World half-heartedly defended Deed's films, which were known in America as the "Foolshead" comedies.  He wrote, "It may be that all sorts of faults can be pointed out in these 'Foolshead' films.  Their improbability and impossibility being the most important, but the average audience seems to accept them as they come.  The films are enjoyed and apparently the more absurd the performances the more the audience likes the pictures.  It would be difficult to say anything else.  It is scarcely right to commend these films, as they violate even common sense.  The fact remains, nevertheless, that they are popular and that the average audience will applaud them and ask for more."  In Foolshead Swallows a Crab (1909), Deed finds after he has eaten a crab that he is behaving much like a crab.  At one point, he walks backwards.  Is that believable?  Does it cause me to feel empathy?  No, but I can say that it makes me laugh.

    André  Deed is tossed out of a hotel room in A Lodging for the Night (1913).

    Department Store, which involved department store workers who come together to help a co-worker who has been robbed, may have been a touching film, but the same story could have easily been enacted on a theatre stage.  Deed and Perez provided impossible dreamlike visions that you could never see in a live theatre show.

    Little did Claudy know that American comedy was soon to be coarsened by the Keystone studio, which would create a sensation the following year.  He would one day get to enjoy the tender and sympathetic comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but he would first have to endure years of low comedy from Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain.

    Carl H. Claudy
    Claudy later achieved success as a science fiction writer, often depicting wholesome American astronauts battling ugly space aliens.  If he expected his readers to suspend their disbelief about invisible beings from Venus prowling the Earth, then he could suspend disbelief about Perez's surreal antics.

    The back cover for Claudy's The Mystery Men of Mars features, in bold letters, a forthright expression of disbelief - "Can Such Things Be?"  The European comedies of this early period were wonderfully creative and absurd.  Such things could exist through a writer's imagination, an actor's expressions, and a technical crew's ingenuity.  Welcome to the cinema of the fantastic.

    You can read more about Deed, Perez and Linder in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film

    Reference Sources

    Claudy, C. H.  "Foibles of the Photoplay."  The Moving Picture World, Volume 8, Number 20, (May 20, 1911). 

    The Moving Picture World (April 15, 1911) 

    The Nickelodeon (October 1, 1910).  p. 200-201.

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  • 10/03/14--13:37: Lloyd's Hamilton's Mom

  • Lloyd Hamilton had a close relationship with his mother, Mary.  This is something that came out clearly during the research that I conducted for Hamilton's biography.  Take, for instance, the following quote that appeared in a Motion Picture News article from June 24, 1927: "Hamilton admits one hobby - that of journeying to Oakland to see his mother after the completion of each comedy."  However, despite everything that I read about Mary Hamilton, I was never able to find a photo of her.  I long imagined that she resembled the white-haired little old ladies that attended to Hamilton's boyish comic persona in films.  I have now found a photo of Mrs. Hamilton.  Yes, as I suspected, she was a white-haired little old lady.

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  • 10/03/14--15:34: Lloyd Hamilton Scrapbook
    I was pleased to have recently acquired additional plot details for Lloyd Hamilton's No Luck (1923) from newly digitized issues of The Film Daily and Exhibitors Herald.  A critic wrote in The Film Daily, "The ladylike comedian is first seen trying his luck as a fisherman.  The fish bite everything imaginable but the bait, finally jumping inside his shirt and biting him."  The fish gag was nothing new for Hamilton.  A variety of animals found their way inside Hamilton's shirt or pants at one time or another. 

    Describing Hamilton as a "ladylike comedian" was not unusual either.  Hamilton's comic character was boyish and fussy.  He had a distinctly swishy walk.  This was enough for critics to refer to the comedian as "prissy,""sissyish," or even "ladylike."  The second half of No Luck takes place at a society ball.  During the scene, Hamilton finds himself unable to pull off a sticky pair of rubber gloves.  Later in the scene, Hamilton performs the fast-paced ragtime dance known as balling the jack. 

    Here are images that I obtained from these digitized magazines.

    Hamilton had a reputation for dressing stylishly.

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    Today, let us examine a number of early European film comedies.  A fine tutorial on this subject is provided by Richard Abel's The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914, which has served as the main reference source for this article.

    Reverse motion effects were used to comic effect in many early films.  An ideal example is the 1903 Pathé Frères comedy A Painter's Misfortune (released originally in France under the title Les Mésaventures d'unartiste).  The film has no real plot.  A painter is busy painting a picture beside a river when, suddenly, a gang of troublemakers sneak up behind him and shove him into the water.  Reverse motion causes the painter to unexpectedly rise out of the water and fall back into the clutches of villains, who merrily repeat their grabbing and jostling.  This action reoccurs a number of times in an effort to elicit increasing laughs.

    A surreal gag punctuates a 1910 Gaumont comedy Mind the Wasps! (released originally in France under the title La Guêpe).  Again, the film has a simple plot.  A man sitting at a sidewalk café table is suddenly bothered by a wasp.  While flailing to kill the wasp, he manages to overturn tables, chairs, and a billiard table.  When the wasp takes a swim in a glass of beer, the man figures to be finally rid of the wasp by consuming the beer and swallowing the pest along with the frothy brew.  He smiles as soon as he empties the glass.  But then he is overcome by a sickening feeling.  As a crowd gathers around him, he goes into a contorted cakewalk dance, his stomach bulges and, finally, he regurgitates a fully formed wasps' nest.

    Filmmakers of the day found creative ways to justify a chase.  Abel provided the following description of Rembrandt de la rue Lepic (1911):
    [A]n artist sells a 'genuine' Rembrandt to a man in a crowded restaurant, a woman accidentally sits on it, the painted image transfers to her white dress, and the man rudely tries to reclaim his purchase.  The woman will have none of this, of course, and a fight breaks out, clearing the restaurant and spilling out into the street.  The ensuing chase, once enlivened by fast motion, destroys one social space after another — including a petit-bourgeois dining room, a garret bedroom, and a bourgeois drawing room (hosting a private concert) — and ends with the women rolled up in the canvas awning of a grocery shop. . . Despite getting his money back at the artist's studio, the obsessed buyer still cuts the 'painting' out of the exhausted woman's backside as his rightful possession.
    Abel discussed an unidentified Gaumont film that was most likely produced in 1910.  The plot was certainly peculiar.  Abel wrote, "[The film] probably would have offended American viewers with its wildly inventive parody of Paris newlyweds who fall into a sewer, live in harmony with rats, use the carcass of a dead dog to divert a flood of water, and pop out of a gutter opening, one year later, with no less than four kids!"

    In Les Trois Willy (1913), a married couple makes plans to bring their son to meet his grandfather for the first time.  But the grandfather, who is unwavering in his belief that a married couple should have at least three children, will not consent to the visit.  The couple figures to make the grandfather happy by pretending to have three sons.  They tell the grandfather that, to avoid tiring him, they will send the sons to visit him one at a time.  They rely on their clever son, Willy, to pretend to be three separate children: a rude brat, a haughty boy wearing a monocle, and a sweet-natured boy who shows up with a bouquet of flowers.

    An absurd modern fable is to be found in Onésime and his donkey (released originally in France under the title Onésime et son âne).  The film is described by Abel as follows:
    Onésime [Ernest Bourbon] has promised his only companion, an ass named Aliboron, that he will share any wealth he comes to possess.  One day, in a variation on the féerie fable of the hen that laid the golden egg, the ass literally begins to shit golden coins.  As promised, the comic treats Aliboron royally — after all, as a piece of property, the ass has turned into a rentier's 'dream machine.'  Indeed, the comic himself now turns into a servant in a series of repeated gags — bathing and dressing Aliboron, serving him dinner in a restaurant, putting him to sleep in a proper bed . . . [I]n the end, the coins prove to be fake, and Onésime reverts to his former state, except for the reversed master-servant relationship that the ass has 'earned' and to which he has grown accustomed.  The film's final [shot] has Onésime, still a 'slave' to his property, now pulling Aliboron comfortably seated in a cart.
    Suicide comedies were commonplace during this period.  These comedies could get extremely silly in spite of their grave premise.  Let's take, for example, the 1911 Pathé Frères comedy Rigadin's Nose (released originally in France under the title Le Nez de Rigadin).  This film, as others in this genre, reminds us that love brings heartbreak more often than joy.  Rigadin (Charles Prince) is harshly rejected by a woman due to his large, upturned nose.  He tries to fool the woman by wearing a fake nose, but a dog snatches the prosthetic proboscis off his face.  Dejected, Rigadin attempts to hang himself, but the noose gets caught on his nose. 

    More involved is the 1912 Gaumont comedy Onésime et le chien bienfaisant (the translation of which is Onésime and the benevolent dog).  Onésime (Bourbon) has fallen in love with a pretty young woman, but the woman has been promised by her father to another man.  Onésime, according to Abel, "plunges. . . into a funk."  He sees no other option other than to kill himself.  Abel wrote, "The father's big black poodle is dismayed at the choice, however, and determines to rectify this situation.  First, the poodle saves Onésime from asphyxiating himself — it jumps in one of his windows and carries off several smoking logs."  Later, the poodle fetches a woman's undergarment and delivers it to the rival's bedroom to make it look to the father as if the man is having an illicit affair.

    Man's enduring hostility towards mothers-in-law is at the basis of the 1912 comedy Alone at Last (released originally in France as Finalmente soli!).  Ernesto Vaser is fed up with an interfering mother-in-law who has joined him and his bride on their honeymoon and has insisted on sleeping between the couple in the marital bed.  Vaser finally disposes of the woman by setting her aloft in a large helium balloon.

    Another man feels ill will towards his mother-in-law in the 1911 Pathé Frères comedy Jobard a tué sa belle-mère.  Lucien Cazalis dresses up as a ghost to scare his mother-in-law.  When the woman faints, Cazalis fears that he has killed her.  The film must have been a success because Cazalis later reworked the premise for Le crime de Caza (1915, Pathé Frères).  Harold Lloyd used the same premise several years later in Hot Water (1924).  Lloyd soaks his mother-in-law's handkerchief in chloroform to put the irritating woman into a sound sleep for the evening.  However, he panics when it appears that the chloroform has put the woman into a permanent sleep.

    Yet another disgruntled son-in-law turns up in the 1910 Pathé Frères comedy The Crocodile (released originally in France under the title Le Caïman).  The film opens with a husband visiting a shipping office to claim a crocodile that has arrived from Egypt.  The man has concocted a scheme to have the crocodile devour his mother-in-law, ridding him of this bane of his existence.  Abel wrote, "[F]reed from its crate, the animal cordially seals their agreement with a handshake."  Back at the apartment, the husband sends the crocodile into the mother-in-law's bedroom, where it slips under her bedcovers.  The woman's flailing feet suggest that she is being eaten alive.  But the husband feels guilty when his wife expresses concern about her mother's whereabouts.  He fires a revolver at the crocodile, after which he slices open the animal's stomach and pulls out his mother-in-law alive and intact.

    André Deed performs an early version of the "bridal run" routine in Cretinetti troppo bello (1909, Itala).  Unique to this variation of the routine is the surreal and macabre ending.

    Various emotional states are explored in a 1911 comedy called Foolshead's Christmas (released originally in Italy as Il Natale di Cretinetti).  Deed bumps into a postman while rushing home with Christmas packages.  He drops the packages and accidentally picks up a packet containing three bottles of ether.  At home, Deed accidentally breaks the bottles one by one.  The gaseous mixtures have the strange effect of changing the mood of the home's occupants from fearful to happy to angry.

    Cretinetti in the cinema (1911)
    In Le Negre blanc (1910), Charles Prince plays a black man who has fallen in love with a white woman.  Knowing that neither the woman nor her father will accept him due to his skin color, he seeks out a coloring expert to lighten his skin.  The coloring expert gives his anxious patient a special concoction to drink.  Prince starts out drinking half the mixture, which turns half his face white, and then he drinks the rest of the mixture to complete the effect.  Upset to learn that the young woman has consented to marry another man, Prince slips the skin-coloring concoction into the woman's champagne glass and proposes that they toast to her engagement.  The woman no sooner drinks the champagne then she becomes black.  At this point, she is promptly rejected by her fiancé, who storms out of the home in disgust.  The woman is also rejected by her own father and even Prince, who finds himself so loath to associate with a dark-skinned lady that he haughtily turns on his heels and departs the premises.    

    Anxiety about interracial romance reached a bizarre peak in the 1911 comedy An Odd Adventure of Foolshead (released originally in France under the title Una strana avventura di Cretinetti).  A large black woman (a white man in drag and blackface) takes a romantic interest in Deed.  She chases her reluctant lover through the city with a bow and arrow.  After much destruction occurs in her desperate pursuit, she finally manages to take Deed captive.  An intertitle indicates that three years have passed.  Deed and the woman are now surrounded by several children who are half white on one side and half black on the other.       

    Max pédicure (1914) features Max Linder as a bourgeois dandy interested in having an affair with a married woman (Lucy d'Orbel).  When he calls on the woman, he is startled by the sudden arrival of the woman's husband.  Abel wrote, "Max goes into a panic, racing around the room like a caged animal . . ."  Max assumes the guise of a pedicurist who has arrived at the home for a scheduled appointment.  When the husband enters, Max is busy working a tiny file on the woman's toenails.  The situation takes a turn for the worse when the husband requests that Max give him a pedicure.  Max dons gloves so that he doesn't have to make direct contact with the man's feet, but this does not make his job any less disagreeable.  He becomes nauseous as he cautiously works at getting off the man's dirty socks.  The comedian uses his extraordinary expressiveness as an actor to make the most of this scene.

    Linder was successful at elaborating on other filmmakers' ideas.  Audiences of the day were amused by the simple plot of the 1907 Pathé Frères comedy Spot on the Phone (released originally in France under the title Médor au téléphone).  Abel described the plot as follows: "[A] man goes to have a drink at a sidewalk café, realizes he has left his dog at home, and calls the dog on the telephone to tell it where to find him."  The dog is shown perched atop a high stool so that it can bark into the phone.  Linder expanded on this premise in a 1912 comedy Max and Dog Dick (released originally in France under the title Max et son chien Dick).  This time, the dog phones its master to alert him that his wife has brought a lover into their home.

     A popular music hall comedian, Félix Galipaux, was well-known for a routine in which he pretended to be an adolescent who smokes his first cigar.  This pantomime routine was ideal for silent films.  Galipaux performed the routine on camera for a 1903 comedy, Cadet's First Smoke (released originally in France under the title Premier Cigare du collégien).  The film was described in the Edison Catalog as follows: "[A cadet] starts to smoke his first cigar.  He begins with a smile of contentment and many ludicrous facial expressions, but after proceeding a short time with his smoke his nerves begin to forsake him.  A pained expression passes over his face and he begins to perspire. Then he becomes deathly ill.  The facial contortions that follow keep the audience in continued laughter."  Linder recreated the routine in Le Premier Cigare d'un collégien (1908).  Abel wrote, "[Linder is] puffing on the cigar and smiling and then looking at it strangely; puffing again, frowning, and looking a bit ill; puffing a third time, belching, and, with his eyes suddenly bulging, holding a handkerchief to his mouth."  See the film for yourself.

    William Sanders performed the routine in a 1911 Éclair comedy, Willie's First Cigar (originally released in France under the title Le premier cigare de Willy).  Lloyd Hamilton performed the routine in No Luck (1923).  In this instance, the film speed slows to suggest the dulling effect that the cigar has on Hamilton's mental facilities.  This was an ideal routine for Hamilton, who chiefly derived humor from his distinct reactions.  A simple scene that allowed the comedian to get laughs with nothing more than facial expressions generally drew praise from critics.  Take, for example, a scene from The Educator (1922).  Hamilton contorts his face and rolls his eyes as he struggles to brush aside a persistent fly that has landed on his nose.  In Exhibitors Trade Review, a critic devoted the entire first paragraph of his review to an extensive discussion of this scene. 

    Every action builds to a silly payoff gag in the 1910 Gaumont comedy Jiggers Buys a Watch Dog (released originally in France under the title Calino achête un chien de garde).  Gaumont's resident boob, Calino (Clément Mégé), discovers his home has been ransacked by robbers.  This motivates him to purchase a ferocious watchdog.  The household — husband, wife, butler, maid, and gardener — prepare for the dog's arrival by constructing an immense doghouse and nailing up a "Danger" sign.  Abel wrote, "At the kennel, Calino chooses the largest, nastiest beast available — it takes two men to wrestle it into a crate on a cart — but fails to tip one of the dog handlers. . ."  The disgruntled dog handler vows to take revenge.  The crate is later delivered to Calino's home.  His family is fearfully trembling in anticipation of meeting the beastly dog.  The group is, however, prepared for the worse.  They are, according to Abel, "dressed in odd bits of armor [and] clasping guns."  Calino opens the crate and tugs on a large chain.  Finally emerging from the crate is a tiny, harmless dog.

    Deed's influence was evident in the mass destruction that often occurred in the "Calino" series.  In Calino apeur du feu (1910), a haggard old fortuneteller warns Calino that, unless he is careful, he is going to perish by fire.  Frightened, Calino immediately tosses his cigarette into the gutter and stamps his foot down on it.  Then, he straps a huge fire extinguisher on his back and strolls through the city spraying water at people smoking cigarettes and automobiles belching exhaust fumes.  The film climaxes with Calino climbing a townhouse roof to extinguish a series of smoking chimneys.  Abel wrote, "An extended sequence follows, alternating between the rooftop, the townhouse dining room (where water pours out of a fireplace to soak a bourgeois couple), the adjacent kitchen (where water erupts out of the stove and splashes the maid), and finally the street below (where two smoking policemen are hit by a cascade of water)."  After Calino is finally arrested, the film still has one last gag to offer.  Abel wrote, "[A]s the police chief lights a cigarette, Calino goes into a quaking fit and then sprays him, too, with his seemingly inexhaustible extinguisher."  The film was remade in 1913 as Fricot and the fire extinguisher (released originally in Italy under the title Fricot e l'estintore).

    This is a poster for Calino sourcier (1913).

    Abel summarized the film's plot as follows: "Calino is equipped with a divining rod that makes water spring out of the most unlikely places.  When he is arrested and taken off to the police station, the rod promptly causes jets of water to erupt out of a wall painting, a desk inkwell, and even one cop's ear.  In a clever twist at the end, Calino himself magically dissolves away in a jail cell, leaving water spraying from every direction." 

    These films were wonderfully surreal and satirical.  The comedians who later achieved success in silent films were in one way or another influenced by the early work of these European comedians, including Max Linder, André Deed, Clément Mégé, Ernest Bourbon, Marcel Perez,and Charles Prince.

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    This month marks the 100th anniversary of Ham and Bud (Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan), who began their partnership playing inept janitors in Lizzie the Life Saver (1914).  Ham and Bud had a relationship that was more distinctly developed than other comedy teams of the period.  They were as close and dysfunctional as most brothers, which means that they could be fiercely jealous of one another in one moment and then be fiercely protective of one another in the next.  So many comedy series of the period were random in their efforts to get laughs, but the Ham and Bud series was able to rely on its lead characters' well-defined relationship to stay on a reasonable and steady course during its prolific 3-year run.

    Happy anniversary, boys!

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    Too often we find that lying behind a comedian's benignly silly grin is a deeply troubled and unhappy individual.  News accounts indicate that goofy, rubber-legged comedian Billy Dooley had problems with anger and anxiety.

    In 1922, Variety reported on a lawsuit filed against Cincinnati's Palace Theatre because Dooley became enraged by three teenage girls in the audience and had ushers eject them from the theatre.  The reporter wrote, "Dooley said the girls were 'flappers' and insisted on laughing at the wrong times."  The young women claimed to have been humiliated by the experience.  One of the young women, Margaret Plucker, said that she became distressed when an usher threatened to have her arrested.  Reportedly, she fainted before they reached the exit and remained unconscious for a half hour.  It was alleged in her lawsuit that she had been made exceedingly nervous by the incident, which had caused permanent damage to her reputation.  Many theatre patrons stepped forward in support of the young women.  The theatre immediately terminated Dooley's engagement.  The young ladies may have exaggerated their trauma, but it is more than likely that Dooley overreacted.

    Stronger evidence of Dooley's emotional problems can be drawn from the fact that, in 1929, the comedian was admitted to the Sylvan Hospital in Hollywood to recover from a nervous breakdown. 

    Dooley did not come back to work for a time.  In 1931, he had a starring role in a two-reel comedy, Smart Work (1931), but this role represented his only film work for more than 3 years.  He did not return before the cameras in full vigor until the end of 1932, when he appeared as a drunk swell in the tart office comedy Manhattan Tower.

    This began a new career for Dooley, who proved adept at playing character roles in feature films.  He acted in 54 more feature films from 1933 to his death in 1938.

    Let's look at a few of his character roles. 

    The comedian was prominently featured in a running gag included in the climax of Joe E. Brown's 6 Day Bike Rider (1934).

    Dooley is the tall reporter in this scene from Harold Lloyd's The Cat's-Paw (1934).

    Hospital Painter in Young and Beautiful (1934)

    Shoeshine Customer in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)

    Ship's Photographer in Anything Goes (1936)

    Film Crewman with Spray Gun in A Star is Born (1937)

    Postman in You're Only Young Once (1937)

    Patient Drinking from Bottle in Between Two Women (1937)

    Fritz in Live, Love, and Learn (1937)


     Racetrack Bugler in A Day at the Races (1937)


    Watchman in Call of the Yukon (1938)

    You can read more about Dooley in Eighteen Comedians Comedians of Silent Film.

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