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    H. G. Wells' famous 1895 novel The Time Machine features a mechanized vehicle that allows the operator to travel to select designations in history.  The idea of a time machine was fairly new at the time.  Previously, fiction stories had characters transported through time by a supernatural being (a ghost in "A Christmas Carol," a demon in "Paris before Men," and a fairy in "Anno 7603").  In other stories, time travel occurred randomly and spontaneously.  A blow to the head suddenly transports a modern man back to 6th-Century England in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). 

    Time travel devices first turned up in literature in the 1880s.  Edward Page Mitchell's 1881 novel "The Clock that Went Backward" involved a man who can travel back in time by winding an enchanted clock.  An intrepid inventor is transported through time by riding in an electric-powered airship in Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau's 1887 novel "El anacronópete."  The airship, as pictured below, is an enormous cast iron box.

    Hollywood has been a great purveyor of time travel stories, but it took filmmakers a long time to introduce a time ship or time machine.  For many years, films relied on the blow-to-the-head premise to send characters back in time.  Lee Tracy took an especially severe blow in Turn Back the Clock (1933).  While drunkenly crossing a street, Tracy is struck by an automobile with ample force to throw him twenty years into the past.

    Another early time travel film was Blondes Prefer Bonds (1931), a short comedy that starred Louise Fazenda.  It was a trend in the early 1930s for beauty specialists to claim they could turn back the years for clients with live cell therapy, monkey gland transplants, or cell rejuvenation treatment.  The film starts out with Fazenda seeking out an anti-aging treatment to regain her husband's affections.  Somehow (the script is vague on the details), the treatment sends Fazenda back to the days of her youth.

    In Berkeley Square (1933), Leslie Howard just needs to step inside an ancestral home to travel back in time to the American Revolution.  In effect, the entire house acts as one enormous time machine.

    Time travel devices have become popular in modern films.  These devices have taken on an outlandish array of forms in the last thirty years.  We've had a car (Back to the Future), a tunnel (The Time Tunnel), a hot tub (Hot Tub Time Machine), a phone booth (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), a police box (DoctorWho), a stopwatch (Voyagers!), a sled (TimeCop), a mirror (Mirror, Mirror), a dagger (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), a timepiece (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), a stealth fighter (The Philadelphia Experiment II), a closet (About Time), a mailbox (The Lake House), and a pod (Demolition Man and Forever Young).  And we have even more devices.  

    A scepter allows the holder to travel through time in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993).

    A group of adventurers are able to plunder historical treasures using a magical map in Time Bandits (1981).

    This handheld Time-Converter permitted the user to open and close fissures in time in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

    A frozen wheel - yes, I said a frozen wheel - could shift an entire island through time in the television series Lost (2008).

    A toaster is used as a time travel device by Homer Simpson in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons ("Treehouse of Horror V").


    Homer also had an idea for a time travel beach chair in a 1998 episode, "When You Dish Upon a Star."

    It is surprising that the cosmic treadmill from The Flash comic book has never made it into a film.

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  • 04/02/15--20:55: The Black Brute
  • Cretinetti attaccabrighe per amore (1911)
    In November, a national spotlight fell on a grand jury hearing in which police officer Darren Wilson testified about his shooting of Michael Brown.  Commentators, including Slate's Jamelle Bouie and Vox's Lauren Williams, found that Wilson's statements recalled the "black brute" stereotype that originated during the Reconstruction era.  Wilson said, "He looked up at me, and had the most intense, aggressive face.  The only way I can describe it – it looks like a demon.  That’s how angry he looked."  Dr. David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University, wrote, "The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal. . . This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace.  Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women."  Historically significant was Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, which later served as the basis for D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).  In the book, Dixon described blacks as "half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit. . . a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger."

    The Birth of a Nation (1915)

    It needs to be examined what myths and realities played a part in the public's perception of Michael Brown.

    It was my contention in The Funny Parts that the black servants in silent film comedy were chiefly derived from the Commedia dell'arte servants and had only a tenuous association with the minstrel show stereotypes.  The Commedia dell'arte's Zanni servant was a statement on class divisions.  Wealthy nobles and merchants of Venice obtained their servants from the Lombard-Venetian countryside.  The men in these poor rustic areas were commonly named Gianni, the Venetian variant of which was Zanni.  So, a funny servant became a Zanni.  A black servant in a silent comedy film, whether he was called Snowball, Hambone or Possum, was a Zanni.

    The minstrel show stereotypes were constructed and conveyed with a mean-spirited glee.  The objective of these depictions was, without question, disparagement and condemnation.  But malice is generally lacking in the way that black servants and black workman are portrayed in silent comedy films.  Traces of the minstrel show stereotypes turn up only occasionally.

    Camouflage (1918)

    Black men were almost never portrayed as brutes in silent film comedy.  The absence of the black brute is not surprising because the silly fellows who made these films were not trying to make a critical commentary on the modern black community.  Not that everyone would agree with my perspective.  Others have made the point that the black brute was too disturbing for popular entertainment.  They claim that the image of the docile black servant was more acceptable to white audiences, who liked to see a black man kept in his place.   

    Comedian Larry Semon was unique in depicting black men as potentially violent.  Take a look at this scene from Semon's The Sportsman (1921).

    Then, we have this scene from Semon's Her Boyfriend (1924).

    A straight razor, which was cheap and easy to acquire, was a popular weapon in black ghettos.  Richard Pryor remembered his grandmother, Marie, keeping a straight razor in her bra.  The straight razor came to be known as a cut-throat razor because a robber could easily convince his victims to relinquish their valuables by pressing the cold blade against their throat.

    Harlem godfather Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, who once worked as a barber, was known to be adept with a straight razor.  This deadly implement figured prominently into a dramatization of Johnson's exploits featured in Hoodlum (1997).  At one point in the film, Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) directs one of his men to slice open a man's throat with a straight razor.  In the 1920s, the idea of a black man menacingly brandishing a straight razor was a source of anxiety for white people, who imagined walking down a street at night and a black man jumping out of the shadows to stab or cut them.  Stories of criminal acts by blacks were given prominence in newspapers and magazines of the day.  But this was never reflected in films except in rare instances.

    Stull and Burns

    A good example of the black brute stereotype could be found in a 1916 "Pokes and Jabbs" comedy Reckless Romeos.  Pokes (Walter Stull) and Jabbs (Bobby Burns) learn of a beautiful and mysterious actress named La Bella Edna (Edna Reynolds).  When they arrive at Edna's home, the actress greets them wearing a veil over her face.  Edna asks that one of the men accompany her to a cafe.  Pokes and Jabbs play a quick dice game to determine which of them should go with Edna.  Pokes wins.  As it turns out, Edna is playing a joke on the men.  She has darkened her face with greasepaint and, once she and Pokes have sat down for dinner, she removes her veil to reveal her dark complexion.  Pokes panics and flees from the cafe.  Jabbs, who has learned of the prank, arrives at the cafe and joins Edna for dinner.  Edna again removes her veil, but Jabbs knows better and acts as if nothing is wrong.  Suddenly, a big burly black man struts into the restaurant and demands that Edna accompany him.  Jabbs tries to interfere, but the black man knocks him out.  Edna races out of the cafe, but the black man chases after her.  The black man overtakes Edna at her home.  He tries to force himself on the frightened woman by threatening her with a straight razor.  When the woman begs for mercy, he grabs a towel and wipes greasepaint off his face, revealing himself to be Pokes.  This is Pokes' rather grim payback for the ruse that the actress played on him.

    It is possible to find other examples of the black brute in early comedy films, but you have to be willing to take your time and look very hard.  A tramp (Fred Mace) is evicted from a wealthy widow's home by a burly black masseur in A Widow's Wiles (1912).  In Where is My Wife? (1921), Monty Banks panics because he assumes that a black man is pulling a knife on him.  The joke, as it turns out, is that the man is simply pulling out a handkerchief.

    Take a glance at this still from a lost film, Zip and Zest (1919).  It looks as if a brutish black man is terrorizing comedy team Joe Rock and Earl Montgomery.  Was the black brute something to laugh about?

    Black characters were not normally among the criminal class in either drama or comedy.  The criminals in films were Italians and Irish.  Low-budget independent films about Harlem gangsters were produced during the 1930s.  But these films, the most notable of which were Harlem After Midnight (1934), Dark Manhattan (1937) and Bargain with Bullets (1937), were distributed exclusively to black neighborhoods. 

    The criminality of the minstrel show black was mostly limited to chicken theft.  This was occasionally the basis of a gag in silent films.

     Don't Park There (1924)

    It could be argued that filmmakers expressed their anxiety of the black brute in an indirect way.  The inspiration of pulp magazines allowed filmmakers to move the action to distant and remote parts of the world, where they could replace switchblade and straight razor with spear and saber.  Black cannibals were eager to stab white castaways with finely sharpened spears.  An Indian maharajah or an Arab sheik, both dark in hue, conveyed unbridled glee as they swung sabers at white tourists.

    A cannibal, which was buried beneath heavy paraphernalia, could be seen as more of an abstraction than an actual human being.

    Washed Ashore (1922)

    But it is undeniable that the legacy of the comic cannibal is offensive.

    Cretinetti Hero (1909)

     Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921)

    The idea of a knife-wielding black bogey man persisted for decades.  Redd Foxx once joked, "I carry a knife now because I read in a white magazine that all black people carry knives.  So I rushed out and bought me one."  In big cities like New York and Chicago, tension grew between black and white residents.  But, even then, the anger and anxiety that white people felt towards the black criminal was never expressed openly in films.  A violent outpouring of emotion did occur, however, when Chicago police captured black serial killer Robert Nixon in 1938.  The man was depicted in the press as a beast.  Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Leavelle wrote, "[C]ivilization has left Nixon practically untouched.  His hunched shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle almost to his knees; his out-thrust head and catlike tread all suggest the animal."

    I should admit that I have deeply personal feelings on the subject.  I was mugged three times - twice in New York and once in Orlando.  All three times, the mugger was a black man.  Two of those times, the mugger threatened me with a knife.  The Orlando incident was the most frightening.  I rode into town on a Greyhound bus.  Because I knew that the station was in a bad part of town, I made sure to arrange my schedule so that I would arrive while it was still daylight.  But Greyhound buses are never on time and, as it turned out, my bus ran three hours late that day.  It was already night by the time that I got off the bus.  It had been a long day and I was exhausted.  I just wanted to get to my hotel room and go to sleep.  The area outside of the terminal was poorly lit.  I could see a cab parked several yards away and waved to the driver.  As I was walking to the cab, a black man stepped of the shadows and poked me in the stomach with a knife.  He demanded my wallet.  All I could think about at the moment was the fact that I had my cash, my credit cards and my hotel reservation in my wallet.  How could I give up my wallet?  I needed my wallet.  So, I hesitated, which got the robber mad.  I felt him press the blade harder into my stomach.  "Come on," he insisted, "give it to me."  But I still did nothing.  He looked surprised, maybe even frightened.  I am not trying to say that I was brave and I was standing up this lowlife.  It was just that I felt as if I was in a dream.  Every muscle in my body had become paralyzed.  Just then, the cab pulled up next to us.  I remember the cab driving up on the curb, but this is likely an embellishment that my mind has weaved into my memory.  The driver jumped out of the cab and grabbed me by the shoulders.  He glared at the man with the knife.  "Leave my passenger alone," he shouted.  The driver threw open the back door of his cab and unceremoniously shoved me inside.  We drove away and it was only then that the reality of the situation hit me.  I am convinced till this day that I might have died that night. 

    Other people in my family have also been crime victims.  My son, Griffin, was home alone at the age of 14 when he became a victim to a home invasion.  His mother was at work.  His younger brother was at day care.  He was playing video games in his bedroom when four black teenage males forced their way into his home. 

    The police acted quickly to round up the four teenagers involved in the crime.  Their ages ranged from 15 to 19.  The youngest one, Terence, had been bragging at his high school about the theft.  He was happy to confess when the police finally caught up to him.  He turned over the stolen items that he had in his possession and he gave the police the names of his accomplices. 

    I later learned a few facts about Terence.  The boy's mother grew up in a middle class family, but she fell in with a young man from a less affluent part of town.  The young man got her into drugs.  She became pregnant with Terence as a result of their relationship.  For reasons that I don't know, the father was arrested and put into prison.  The mother's drug use got out of control and authorities turned Terence over to her parents.  Terence was able to make friends in his grandparents' neighborhood, but he preferred to spend time with friends and family from his old neighborhood.   I understand that one of his accomplices was a cousin. 

    The two older teenagers from this group had extensive criminal records.  My son's mother talked to their probation officer.  The probation officer said that the 19-year-old of the group had the worst juvenile record that he had ever seen.  He had committed a long list of crimes, but he had never seen the inside of a prison.  This was because the crime occurred in Gainesville, the residents of which have a more liberal stance on juvenile crime than people in most other parts of Florida.  I talked to a victim's advocate at the prosecutor's office.  She expressed more compassion for the criminals than she expressed for my son.  She said that they do everything they can to make sure juvenile criminals finish high school.  She insisted that taking them out of school and putting them into prison will only turn them into career criminals. 

    I earned a college degree in criminology.  I know all the theories and statistics about juvenile crime.  From what I've learned, you focus on reforming the ones that you can and you get the rest of them off the street.  The criminal justice system is limited in what it can do with criminals.  Rehabilitation would be the best outcome, but this is something that is rarely achieved through government intervention.  Seeing criminals serve long sentences in prison should create deterrence, but criminals don't worry about prison because they never believe that they're going to get caught.  There is a discomfort that many people feel to have punishment effected by the justice system.  It is the reason that we don't see public floggings.  It may seem to be inhumane for a man to gain satisfaction from inflicting pain on another man.  Responding to cruelty with cruelty is a self-defeating practice.  But prison is undoubtedly good at one thing - incapacitation.   Violent criminals need to be locked up so that they cannot continue to hurt others. 

    The value of incapacitation is proven by an incident that occurred in Gainesville only a few months before my son's break in.  Alfred White, Jr., a black juvenile criminal on probation, made plans with his girlfriend to rob a convenience store.  The only person standing between them and the money was a 46-year-old woman behind the counter.  White needed to make sure that this woman didn't interfere with the robbery.  So what did he do?  He threw bleach into the woman's face, pushed her to the floor, and beat her senseless.  Then, finally, he grabbed money from the register and ran.  It was at first believed that the cashier had permanently lost her sight, but she managed in time to regain partial vision.  White had committed several crimes before his convenience store robbery.  He had an extensive criminal record.  Why was he allowed on the street?  Authorities wanted him to finish high school.  I agree that it doesn't benefit anyone to put juveniles in prison, where they can be mentored by older criminals.  But that's not the only option.  Other cities in Florida have programs that allow a juvenile criminal to live under strict supervision in a halfway house.  The people who run the halfway houses make sure that their residents continue their education and earn their high school diploma.  You don't have a chance to get a young criminal on the right path unless you get them away from their bad homes and their bad peers.

    In college, I studied a wide variety of crime statistic reports.  No matter how you want to look at these statistics, the plain fact remains that black men create a disproportionate amount of crime.  Pick any type of report.  I remember having to analyze a report that mapped out a city's car theft incidents for a three-year period.  Low crime areas were green, moderate crime areas were yellow, and high crime areas were red.  The closer that a car was to a black neighborhood, the more likely it was to be robbed.  Black neighborhoods and nearby areas were red zones on the map. 

    I had professors who had been criminal attorneys.   I had professors who had been police officers.  I heard a variety of stories.  Prosecutors in many jurisdictions will not pursue a case unless they know they can win it.  They are not frivolously throwing criminals in prison.  A former defense attorney told me that he had started out with great enthusiasm.  He was going to make sure that he kept the innocent defendant out of prison.  But he became cynical after doing this job for years.  His clients never bothered to hide their guilt from him.  Guilt or innocence wasn't the issue.  Justice wasn't the issue.  His clients always expressed the same concern: "My last attorney got me a good deal.  What kind of deal can you get for me?"

    Of course, the impressions that I have on this subject go back years before my college education and the aforementioned crime incidents.  As a child, I lived in a white neighborhood and the subject of black people was not something my parents discussed.  But I saw black people on television.  Of course, I watched the old comedies.  I laughed at Dudley Dickerson acting scared and confused in Three Stooges comedies, but that clowning in no way diminished my opinion of black people.  How could it?  By then, Dickerson did not have to stand alone as the ambassador of black men.  The actor appeared on television alongside a wide range of black actors, including Sidney Poitier, Greg Morris, Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, Don Marshall, Brock Peters and Bill Cosby.  Morris played an electronics and forgery expert on Mission: Impossible.  Dixon played a communications expert on Hogan's Heroes.  Cosby played a witty secret agent on I Spy.  Poitier was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  I admired Poitier when I saw him in The Heat of the Night, I felt sympathy for Poitier when I saw him in A Raisin in the Sun, and I had affection for Poitier when I saw him in Lilies of the Field

    Forced busing brought black teenagers to my community in Bayside, Queens, in 1971.  That was the year that a group of black teenage girls threw my sister down a flight of stairs at her high school.  This was the first time that I got a close and sustained view of black people.  Groups of black teenage boys left school grounds contrary to school rules.  These teenagers went out of their way to act intimidating.  They never walked casually.  They always walked with a purposeful swagger.  They never talked calmly or quietly.  They laughed as loudly as they could and they shouted an unnerving stream of obscenities - "shit,""fuck,""motherfucker," and "damn." 

    When I came home for lunch, my mother often sent me to Carl's Deli to buy groceries - usually milk, or bread, or cigarettes.  The deli, which made the best hero sandwiches in town, was always crowded at lunchtime.  I often begged my mother for the money to buy a hero, but she insisted that the heroes were expensive and we didn't have the money to afford them.  Several black teenage boys were often at the deli at lunchtime.  They would pull out large rolls of bills to pay for their heroes and sodas.  At the time, I knew that they came from poor neighborhoods and didn't understand how they could have so much money. 

    Once they had their food, the teenagers sprawled out on the front porch of a nearby home.  The teenagers didn't bother to get the homeowner's permission.  They laughed, cursed, and tossed their bags and wrappings on the ground.  I knew the old woman who lived in one of the homes.  One day, the old woman came outside to confront the teenagers.  She told them that they could eat lunch on her porch as long as they cleaned up after themselves.  They agreed.  They were even polite about it, which made me think that they might not be so bad.

    When I went to Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens, I saw black teenage boys get off the school buses in the morning and head straight for the school's basketball courts, where they would hang out and play basketball for the rest of the day.  The school administration did not do anything about this blatant truancy.  When we went outside for physical education, the coaches specifically instructed us not to wander over to the basketball courts.  Presumably, the school administration preferred to have this unwilling and uncooperative group segregated from the rest of the students.  They were contained like Indian warriors on a reservation.  Towards the end of my time at school, I heard that a number of homes in the area had been robbed by teenagers who had wandered off the basketball courts.  The young ladies who arrived on the same buses did attend class and, from what I saw, they had no problem securing a place in the school community.

    I became emancipated from my parents when I was fifteen years old and I went to live with my older cousin Tom.  I went to school every day and I worked hard to get good grades.  I couldn't imagine how I would support myself without a high school diploma.  I never understood the reason that these other teenagers would turn down the opportunity for an education. 

    I could go on and on with what I remember.  Let me share just one more memory that stands out.  My father was a fireman in Queens, but his company often had to travel to black neighborhoods in the Bronx due to chronic incidents of arson.  As the fire truck made its way through these neighborhoods, residents shouted at the firemen and threw bottles at them.  My father nearly died in one of these fires.  At the time, I thought that it would be better if my father let those neighborhoods burn.

    We, as human beings, are products of our experiences.  How should I process these experiences?  What am I supposed to think?

    Poitier's positive portrayals were suddenly undone by blaxploitation films, which promoted the image of black men as dangerous criminals.  I always found this odd since it was black filmmakers who had promoted these negative images.  In the 1980s, black actor Robert Townsend complained about white producers always wanting to cast him as pimps and junkies.  But it was black filmmakers who established these stereotypes. 

    Beginning in the 1980s, gangsta rap celebrated illegal street gangs and the "gangsta" lifestyle.  Rap artists openly boasted of their associations with street gangs to give themselves a dark and edgy image.  The genre promoted murder, thievery, drug dealing, substance abuse, promiscuity and vandalism.  Black youth has been heavily influenced by gangsta rap.  The black teenagers who robbed my son were dressed in impeccable hip hop fashion.

    Then, we have music artist John Legend.  When he accepted the Best Original Song Oscar for Selma, Legend said, "We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real.  We live in the most incarcerated country in the world.  There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."  It is deeply misguided to equate prison inmates to the Old South's plantation slaves.  Also present on stage was Legend's collaborator, Common, who once wrote a song to honor fugitive cop killer Assata Shakur.  Besides her conviction for murdering a police officer, Shakur was linked to a turnpike shootout, three armed robberies, a kidnapping, another murder, and an attempted murder.  As a crime victim, I regard it as deeply offensive for Legend to imply that every black man is in prison because of their skin color and not because of their victimization of other people.  I am even more offended by Common expressing his admiration for a cop killer.  What messages are being sent to the black youth of America?  I have great love and sympathy for children.  They deserve better guidance than this.

    I know the arguments about profiling and stop-and-frisk.  I concede that these policing methods can be abused.  But the media has greatly exaggerated the problems in this area.  I knew a police officer who was involved in a stop-and-frisk operation.  It didn't require a sophisticated strategy to accomplish this job.  The police staked out a high crime neighborhood and they waited for young men to show up wearing gang colors.  For instance, a member of the Bloods gang could be expected to show up wearing a red bandana or a red cap.  I would describe this as shooting ducks in a barrel except that I think a duck trapped in a barrel presents more of a challenge.  It went even beyond gang colors.  This was years before the gang members wised up and made a fundamental effort to avoid detection.  At the time, a gang member might identity his gang affiliation by wearing a blue knit beanie, a baseball cap turned at an angle, or a plaid shirt (the color of the plaid depended on the gang).  Some gang members even went as far as wearing the gang's initials on their belt buckle or wearing a jacket with a gang symbol embroidered on the back.  Below is a member of the Los Solidos street gang showing off a tattoo of the gang's motto: "Laugh now, cry later."

    They might as well wear a "Come and get me, cops!" tattoo across their forehead.  Would you board a plane with a man who has an ISIS tattoo?  You don't even need to look at a crime statistic report to know that gang activity occurs in the neighborhood.  A gang will brazenly mark their territory with graffiti. 

    It is the chicken-or-egg dilemma.  Does a high conviction rate bring about targeting or does targeting bring about a high conviction rate?  I believe that the former is true.  In either case, criminals are being caught and convicted, which means that I can sleep better at night.

    Profiling and stop-and-frisk policies aren't the real problems that need to be addressed in this situation.  Legend needs to speak out when a video like this is posted to the Internet. 

    This man, Vincent Lavon Johnson, is in no way inhibited about punching a pregnant woman in the face during a robbery.  This is a man filled with a sense of righteousness.  Who has told him that he has a right to do this?  Hey, he's just living the thug life.  He's hardcore.  He's a badass.  What is more damaging to the image of black people - Dudley Dickerson or Vincent Lavon Johnson? 

    Reality television producers populate their programs with people who fit ethnic stereotypes.  The Jersey Shore cast knew that they could get more screen time if they played up the guido stereotype.  But black people receive the worst treatment on reality television and, unfortunately, they do so as eager participants.  Ratings are earned by reality television stars who are willing to act foolishly.  In this way, reality television has become the new minstrel show. 

    It helped Italians to gain acceptance that, in the 1950s, the country fell under the spell of many smooth and charming Italian singers, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Frankie Lane.  Little Wayne does not benefit the image of black people.

    It would seem that Michael Brown was a product of a brute stereotype promoted freely in the media.

    Empowerment is about opportunity and achievement.  It is not about making yourself physically intimidating.

    Image is important in society.  If you want a good image, you have to be careful how you make yourself look to other people.  RapRehab columnist Lauren Carter wrote, "There is a lot we can’t control when it comes to racism and stereotypes.  But how we choose to portray ourselves through our art is something we can and should control, with the well-being of our people — and not personal wealth — as the end goal." 

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    We all know that, in the history of film comedy, a select number of gags and routines have been recycled endlessly.  The recently released Marcel Perez Collection includes a smattering of familiar comic business.  The Commedia dell'Arte's "man disguises as chair" routine, known formally as "Lazzo of Hiding," turns up in two of the Perez comedies, Camouflage (1918) and Sweet Daddy (1921).

    Camouflage (1918)


    Sweet Daddy (1921)


    Here is another version of the chair routine performed by Monty Banks in Nearly Married (1920).  This clip and many other clips in this post come from a YouTube channel created by film collector Tommie Hicks, Jr.

    Disguising as a coat rack is another effective form of camouflage.  Herman learned this in an episode of TheMunsters called "Herman's Sorority Caper" (1966).

    Camouflage is shown to be an important part of military training in Dad's Army.

    The vacuum cleaner routine has been featured in films for more than a hundred years.  Whenever it seems as if the routine has disappeared forever, it will suddenly resurface in a film or television show.  The routine recently made a brash return in an episode of The Odd Couple.

    The message, very clearly, is that some gags can never die. 

    This is a unique variation of a stock routine performed by Hank Mann in Hot Dogs (1920).

    I keep coming across mannequin legs in comedy films.

    This scene from Her Painted Hero (1915), which teamed Charlie Murray and Polly Moran, includes a military drill routine and a hose routine.  We even get the reliable gag of a baby doll being tossed around like a football.

    The "baby doll tossing" routine figured prominently in the climax of Marcel Perez's You're Next (1919).

    Andy Warhol took the baby tossing business to a ghastly extreme in Bad (1977).

    Stan Laurel was fond of the military drill routine.  Here he performs a fairly standard version of the routine in Under Two Jags (1923).

    This scene from Hot Sands (1924) features Monty Banks performing a mock fight routine that had previously been performed by Max Linder in Be My Wife (1921).

    Charlie Chase later acted out this comic business in Mighty Like a Moose (1926).  This is the type of routine that could not do well in a sound film.  Sound gives force and weight to a fight.  The sounds that are made when two men get into a scuffle cannot be mimicked by a single man flinging himself around and clutching his own throat.  Chase's version of the routine is clearly the superior one.  Look at it and see if you agree.

    Banks borrows this collapsible chair routine from Charlie Chaplin's A Day's Pleasure (1919).

    The next routine has come up often in my writings. David Kalat recently dubbed this once popular laugh-getter the "Black Reveal" routine.  Monty Banks performs a variation of the routine during an amusement park ride in Hot Sands.  

    Note that, once Banks recovers from the shock, he politely tips his hat to the woman.  The woman does not act as if she has been insulted.  Quite the contrary, she couldn't look more amused as she laughs off the poor man's shock and confusion.  It is not that Banks dislikes the woman or the woman dislikes him.  The simple fact is that, at the time, anti-miscegenation laws criminalized sexual relations between whites and blacks. 

    Harold Lloyd provides a unique twist on this gag in Fireman, Save My Child (1918).

    Under the circumstances, it was odd for this same routine to be transferred to a pair of children in Kid Tricks (1927).

    An unconscious woman proves to be an unmanageable burden to Stan Laurel in Under Two Jags (1923).

    A woman could be relied upon to periodically lose consciousness to force a comedian into an awkward situation.

    How about dealing with a seemingly unconscious man?  In Room Service (1938), Harpo pretends to have committed suicide to forestall the hotel manager's efforts to evict him and his friends from their rooms.  The hotel manager, fearful of scandal, is agreeable to Groucho's plan to dump the "body" in the alley.

    Sid Smith had similar troubles moving a seemingly dead man in An Auto Nut (1919).

    Chaplin famously turned a massage into a wrestling match in The Cure (1917).

    Snub Pollard attempted similar business in What a Whopper! (1921).  But Pollard was not as clever or expressive as Chaplin, which made it necessary to add a floppy dummy into the action to insure laughs.

    This empty window pane gag was widely circulated among film comedians.  Here is yet another version of the gag that I discovered.  The comedian is Jack Cooper.

    Monty Banks follows a lively comic dance with the torn trousers bit in Nearly Married (1920).

    Lively food was frequently a source of comedy in silent films.  Hilliard Karr must contend with an uncooperative stalk of asparagus in Three Wise Goofs (1925).

    What would classic film comedy be without men lumbering around in ape suits?  Bert Roach disguises as a chimp in a scene from Under a Spell (1925).

    We find an oft-repeated scenario in Plumb Crazy (1923).  An inept plumber (Bobby Vernon) causes water pipes to burst, breaking up a high society party and flooding a luxurious home.

    How about a few more hat mix-up routines?


    The mirror routine has proliferated in countless numbers.  Here are two more examples.

    Dick Powell and Lee Bowman in Model Wife (1941)
    Mick Jagger and Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live

    For an episode of his NBC variety show, Jerry Lewis revives an old routine that had been performed before by Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields.  I discussed this routine in a previous post.

    This clip should have been included in my retrospective on the "stuck in a tight enclosure" routine, which can be found here.  Herman (Fred Gwynne) and Grandpa (Al Lewis) get themselves locked over night in a bank vault in The Munsters episode "Don't Bank On Herman" (1965).

    As long as we're looking at scenes from The Munsters, here is the complete coat rack scene that was mentioned at the beginning of this article.

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  • 04/04/15--20:18: The Snark

    In 2013, the Nerdist website introduced James Bonding, a series of extensive podcast discussions about the long-running James Bond film franchise.  I made it a third of the way through an incredibly snarky discussion of Thunderball (1965) before I endured as much stupidity as I could take and refused to listen any further.  You would never know that Thunderball was a beloved classic from listening to this spiteful dissection of the film by hosts Scott Mosier, Matt Mira and Matt Gourley.  This podcast series is no doubt aimed at millennials, who insist on mocking or protesting any book or film that wasn't produced by their own wonderfully enlightened generation.  Oddly, though, Mira is the only true millennial of the group.  Mosier and Gourley, though they have the cranky and arrogant attitude right, were born nearly a decade too early to be part of this group.  They fall into the category of millennial wannabes or millennial pretenders.

    Not surprisingly, the trio made it clear within the first few minutes of their discussion that they embrace politically correct views.  They expressed distress that a shark was harpooned during an underwear action sequence and thought that this might be a reason to dismiss the film altogether.  They were also upset that James Bond killed a SPECTRE assassin who had disguised himself as a woman.  It didn't matter that the assassin was wearing a dress simply to hide his identity.  The sight of Bond beating and ultimately strangling a man dressed as a woman did not meet their LGBT-friendly standards and it proved far too disturbing for their delicate sensibilities.


    The fact that Bond snidely throws flowers on the corpse was, from their  perspective, a reference to the assassin's effeminate attire and proof to them of the super spy's terrible disdain for cross-dressers.


    The trio admitted during their analysis of the scene that they had no idea what was going on.  They blamed their confusion on the filmmakers.  One of them said, "There's no information coming from that [scene]."  But the real problem was that they hadn't listened to expository dialogue in the previous scene.  It's difficult to pay attention to a film when you are too busy thinking of ways to attack or make fun of it.

    The final aspect of this discussion that irritated me was the group's dissatisfaction with the film's special effects.  Our cranky critics singled out a scene in which Bond escapes from the assassin's accomplices by strapping on a jet pack and flying out of bullet range.  Their main complaint was that Bond flies "ten feet."  They hardly thought that the short flight made it worth Bond strapping on the jet pack.  Bond actually flies a lot farther than ten feet, but the scene was simply not spectacular enough for them.  They wanted to see Bond fly across London to M's office.  They thought that it would have been cool to see him fly past Buckingham Palace.  In other words, they wanted to see bigger-than-life CGI effects.  If you can't enjoy a film without CGI effects, then you need to stick with films from the last fifteen years.  Films that predate 2000 are just not for you.  I, myself, find the jet pack scene to be charming and amusing.  

    Imagine walking around the Louvre and a couple of jerks behind you are constantly mocking the artwork.  One of them reaches up to tweak a breast on the Venus de Milo.  The two of them snigger every few moments.  It would get annoying, right?   I feel that way about the snarky young film critics that are multiplying frantically throughout the blogosphere.  They love to attack highly regarded old films. 

    I found a review of a DVD set, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, written for the Washington Post by Philip Kennicott.  I had no reason to think the article was anything other than a straightforward review.  The article was titled, simply, "What Makes Comedy Tick?"  I am always interested in an intelligent, in-depth analysis of silent film comedy.  I especially love Harold Lloyd films.  So, I had every reason to think I would enjoy reading the article.  But then I read this:
    "The films of Lloyd are very much steeped in both the charm and ugliness of their era. . . Scan his movies intently for a sign of the Other, people of different races, outsiders, and you realize that these films epitomize the last, regnant, unalloyed era of Whiteness.  . . Unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the Lloyd character - a young man with a blazingly pale face, set off by a shock of dark hair and often a dark suit - is utterly at home in his world.  He may be insecure, or poor, or reduced by love to ridiculousness, but he inhabits his world as if he owns it. . . He is the essence of pluck, the virtue that privileged men always recommend to the less fortunate, unaware that pluck and opportunity don't go hand in hand.  Pluck works for the right people, the ones for whom the rules have been written to ensure a happy ending."
    Wow, could this man be more bitter?  Lloyd made some of the sweetest and most charming films of the 1920s.  How could Kennicott attack those films in this way?  Kennicott won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.  Is this the type of foul and twisted commentary that we get from a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic?


    I have always identified with Lloyd's underdog characters and found their success inspiring.  I write in my new book, I Won't Grow Up!, about the helpful lessons that Lloyd's films teach about a young man assuming responsibility and becoming a true adult.   These film fables are valuable as both art and history.  They have a place among America's antiquities of the Twentieth Century.  If a film is a Rorschach test, I could use Kennicott's review to identify a serious thought disorder on the author's part.  Does this white man loathe himself for his own success?  Does he believe that, as a white man, he did not earn his success?  Should every successful white man who reads this loathe himself?  Or does Kennicott, in a way other than race, represent the "outsider" in Lloyd's world.  Only self-loathing or outsider status could explain the reason that he hates everything that Lloyd represents. 

    This is equivalent to the jerk in the Lourve gathering up a wad of phlegm in his mouth and spitting it into the Mona Lisa's smiling face.  The Mona Lisa has nothing to prove.  It long ago established itself as a masterwork.  Even more important, it carries the weight of history.  The painting has been on display in a number of palaces for the last six hundred years.  It once hung in the bedroom of Napoleon.  Similarly lofty credentials apply to Lloyd's best films, including Safety Last! and The Kid BrotherSafety Last! is not the latest episode of New Girl, which a bunch of Internet commentators can thoughtlessly hash over.

    A woman once tried to spray the Mona Lisa with red paint because she was upset that the museum did not do more to accommodate disabled people.  A Russian woman who was upset with France's immigration policies threw a souvenir terra cotta mug at the painting.  Kennicott is having a very similar tantrum in his critique of the great comedian's work.  No respect should be paid to idiotic political activists who recklessly and furiously tear down classic art.

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  • 04/04/15--21:10: Hollywood's BS History

  • Many genres of film satisfy an audience by merely being entertaining.  It is sufficient that they present an agreeable and transitory occupation of the mind.  But a good true-life drama should not be produced for the simple purpose of entertainment.  Its key objective should not be to produce the big laughs that are aroused by a slapstick comedy or the thrills that are aroused by an action film.  A true-life drama should be more ambitious, meaningful and honest than that. 

    I emphasize the honesty part of this equation.  A documentary is able to remain engrossing by adhering to the facts.  Why should it be different with a biopic?  Fact is far more interesting than fiction.  The problem is, though, that most people do not go to a theater to see a documentary.  So, filmmakers don't care what works with a documentary.  They want to create a big studio drama that can, if marketed right, reach a wide audience.  It is their objective to make the story larger than life and follow tried-and-true dramatic conventions.  It doesn't matter to them if, in the process, they underestimate the intelligence of their audience.

    I am not fond of films that allege to depict true stories but deviate wildly and purposefully from the facts.  It has nothing to do with efficient storytelling.  The inaccuracies in these films come down to cheating, manipulation and pandering.  Once a screenwriter allows himself to change major details for dramatic effect, he leaves behind the real world and enters a fantasy world.  There's a line that they have crossed and there's no guarantee that they will ever find their way back.

    It has been more than fifty years since the release of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the film is still harshly judged for its inaccuracies.  The main criticism of the film is centered on the mild-mannered characterization of the original "Birdman," convict Robert Stroud.  Film historian Robert Niemi wrote that Stroud was "an extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath, disliked and distrusted by his jailers and fellow inmates."  So, forget about the tenderness and humanity that Burt Lancaster exquisitely conveys in the role.

    The biopic has hit its peaks and valleys throughout the history of films.  The Jolson Story (1946) launched a wave of infamous show business biopics, including The Great Caruso (1951), Valentino (1951), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), Houdini (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Buster Keaton Story (1957).  Unfortunately, the men who produced these films maintained the lowest of standards when it came to the accuracy.  An introductory title for The Young Caruso (1951) describes the plot as "a poetic interpretation of [Caruso's] youth."  Lewis Allen, the director of Valentino, flatly admitted that the story that he presented of Valentino's life was "imaginary."  It was so imaginary that the producers were sued for libel by Valentino's family and a former Valentino co-star, Alice Terry.  Both cases were settled out of court.  This is not to say that respectable biopics did not emerge from this period.  I would include in this category The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), The Desert Fox (1951) and Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951) (although the makers of Thorpe did tack on a faux happy ending).

    This period was followed by a twenty-year golden age for the biopic.  Here is a partial list of the acclaimed biopics produced during this time:

    The Miracle Worker
    Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
    Papillon (1973)
    Serpico (1973)
    Lenny (1974)
    Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
    The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
    The Elephant Man (1980)
    Raging Bull (1980)
    Gandhi (1982)

    Hollywood has since returned to the shameless fictionalization of true life stories.  It's a problem that seems to only get worse.  A biopic is no sooner released to theaters then it is torn apart on the Internet for its fabrications and distortions.  As I recall, David Edelstein of New York Magazine was particularly critical of the inaccuracies of Frost/Nixon (2008).

    Let me tell you about a biopic that I saw recently.  Filmmakers found their main hook in a relationship between the story's principal male character and its principal female character.  Early on in the film, a scene is presented to firmly establish this relationship.  The scene bothers me because it is so crucial to the story but it is so, so untrue.  What was the name of the film?  Actually, this description fits several biopics that came out last year.  Where do I start?


    Let's go to the first act of The Imitation Game.  A humorous scene set at the Government Code and Cypher School depicts Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) assessing Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) for a cryptographer job.  Clarke and other applicants for the job are given a timed exercise in which they must complete a crossword puzzle in under six minutes.  Turing does not expect any of the applicants to pass the test.  He confides to a co-worker that he, himself, needed eight minutes to finish the puzzle.  But Turing is astonished when Clarke, who is the only woman in a room filled with men, cheerfully passes the test with several seconds to spare.  Yes, we have in this scene a celebration of female empowerment.  A woman gets to put a bunch of meathead men to shame.  This is an ideal example of pandering.  Truth be told, this scene never happened.  The truth is that Clarke was recruited to the Government Code and Cypher School by her former academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman, who offered her a job without needing her to work out a puzzle.  Turing was not at all involved in her hiring.

    Let us now look at Big Eyes.  You are likely familiar with these paintings of big-eyed waifs, which at one time could be found everywhere.

    As it turned out, the publicity that made these paintings so famous was a colossal lie.  Margaret Keaton, who produced this iconic work, toiled in obscurity while her husband, Walter Keane, took the credit.  Walter, who was a smooth talker, thought that the paintings could be better marketed if he acted as the frontman.   His deception was made worse by the vulgar way in which he reveled in his new-found celebrity.  But he was highly effective as a frontman and as a marketer.  He managed, in his promotion of his wife's paintings, to revolutionize the mass marketing of pop art.  This is America.  Isn't salesmanship everything?

    In the film, Walter is excited that his wife's "Tomorrow Forever" painting is to be unveiled at the World's Fair.  But Walter becomes infuriated when art critic John Canaday writes a vicious review of the painting.  Walter confronts Canaday at a dinner party and attempts to stab the art critic with a fork.  Canaday makes use of amazingly fast reflexes to intercept the fork before it can pierce his flesh.  In real life, Walter did become upset with a bad review from Canaday.  Vanity Fair's Julie Miller wrote, "The fair’s organizers hung [the painting] at the Pavilion of Education and Walter Keane imagined the piece one day being celebrated as much as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel."  So, of course, he was upset.  But he never attacked Canaday at a dinner party.  Evidently, the filmmakers didn't think that they could convey Walter's distress by having him grumble bitterly or slam down the newspaper that contained the review.  So, instead, they had to create this overdone party scene.  But it gets worse.  Only minutes later, Walter goes on another rampage.  This time, he argues with Margaret and attempts to burn down their luxurious home.  This scene, too, is a fabrication.

    "Tomorrow Forever" painting

    Walter Keane is criticized in the film for creating a false history for himself, yet the scriptwriters feel no shame in creating their own false history for him.  I personally don't need stabbings and homes engulfed in flames to hold my attention.  I am not so dull-witted that I need to be stimulated by cheap, contrived, overblown drama.  If a story lacks real drama, why bother to tell it in the first place? 

    Most of the changes in Big Eyes were designed to portray Walter as dangerous and abusive and to portray Margaret as helpless and frightened.  It became a feminist fable, which made it easy to market to critics.  Yes, a film about a marketing scam was in itself a marketing scam.  This tale about the evils of marketing and the evils of the 1960s era husband recalls, in ways, Mad Men.

    Big Eyes' variation on The Imitation Game job application scene occurs fifteen minutes into the film.  It is a marriage proposal scene.  The filmmakers set up the scene so that Margaret won't have to take personal responsibility for her decision to marry Walter.  In the preceding scenes, they have shown the couple engaged in a whirlwind courtship.  Now, after the couple has been dating for two weeks, Margaret learns that her ex-husband has filed papers to remove their daughter from her custody.  Dialogue falsely proposes that the evil, women-oppressing judges of the era will inevitably remove a child from the custody of a single mother.  Walter offers to marry Margaret to assure that she can keep her daughter.  Not only is Margaret in a heady state over her budding relationship with Walter, but she is in dire fear of losing her daughter.  So, these heightened emotions conspire to push her into an unwise marriage with Walter.  The problem, yet again, is that none of this actually happened.  The couple knew each other for two years prior to marrying and Margaret's ex-husband was not trying to get custody of their daughter.  So, contrary to the film's claims, Margaret did not enter this marriage under duress and she had adequate time to become acquainted with Walter.  If marrying Walter was wrong, Margaret needed to own up to her bad judgment.  I doubt, though, that she ever really had regrets. 

    This now brings us to the part of the film that bothered me the most.  The film makes it clear that Walter initiated the fraud without Margaret's knowledge and, when she found out about it, it was too late for her to do anything about it.  It makes sense in the context of the film.  We are supposed to believe that Margaret was a horribly oppressed wife who had no control over what her husband did.  Margaret, herself, wanted everyone to believe that she had been locked in a dungeon-like art studio with an ample supply of canvas and paint.  She said that she was brainwashed.  She said that Walter had Mafia connections and threatened to have her knocked off.  I'm sorry, I don't believe it.  Walter no doubt liked the money and the celebrity.  I can believe that he pressured Margaret to work long hours to churn out the paintings.  But I suspect that Margaret was culpable in the fraud.  She certainly benefited from it.  This was not a tragic story of plagiarism on par with The Phantom of the Opera.  Margaret didn't have acid thrown into her face.  She didn't have to live in the sewers of Woodside, California.  All in all, she made a lot of money and she has lived happily ever after.  Margaret admitted that she didn’t care at first that Walter had plagiarized her work.  She said, "After we started to make it, it didn't make any difference."


    Margaret divorced Keane and moved to Hawaii and yet she maintained the fraud for another five years.  During this time, she continued to supply Walter with paintings to sell.  Why?  Because Walter knew how to make money for her.  This was a mutually beneficial relationship.

    The same dreary biopic formula was applied again to The Theory of Everything.  This time, the couple is astrophysics student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  In real life, Hawking and Wilde had a creepily strange and enigmatic relationship that most filmgoers would likely have found off-putting.  The filmmakers shaved the rough edges off this relationship to make a more conventional love story.

    Hawking and Wilde exchanged their addresses at a party just as it is depicted in the film, but neither was interested enough to contact the other to set up a date.  The pair happened to meet again months later on a train.  By then, Hawking had been diagnosed with ALS.  He revealed to Wilde that he was suffering loss of muscle control, which made it difficult for him to stand or walk, and he was expected to die in approximately two years.  Wilde had Hawking's name and address for months and never bothered to contact him.  Now, she was willing to embark on a romantic relationship with this fatally ill man.  Why?  Wilde told The Observer that she never really considered his illness at the time.  She said, "[W]e had this very strong sense at the time that our generation lived anyway under this most awful nuclear cloud - that with a four-minute warning the world itself could likely end.  That made us feel above all that we had to do our bit, that we had to follow an idealistic course in life.  That may seem naive now, but that was exactly the spirit in which Stephen and I set out in the sixties - to make the most of whatever gifts were given to us."  This is not a satisfying answer to me.  Obviously, it was not a satisfying answer to the filmmakers, who altered the story so that the couple fell inexorably in love before Hawking's diagnosis. 

    It gets even stranger.  Hawking is depicted in his relationship with Wilde as charming, attentive and gentle.  But Wilde admitted that, despite his charm, Hawking was often rude, arrogant and insensitive.  Wilde developed an intimate relationship with her church's choir director during the marriage.  Her in-laws believed that the third child that she conceived while married to Hawking was a product of that relationship.  I do not know how this situation was handled in the film because I was unable to get through more than half of the film.  Suffice to say, their relationship was not the bright romance that was showcased in the trailer.

    I do not demand that biopics be perfectly accurate.  I have no issues with condensed timelines or composite characters.  In rare instances, a good filmmaker can produce a film that is so engrossing and enjoyable that the real facts hardly matter.  Film critic Hal Erickson reasonably called Houdini"highly fanciful but immensely entertaining."  At other times, a biopic can be so wonderfully campy that no one cares about the truth.  The films that fall into this category include Annie Get Your Gun (1950), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and Ed Wood (1994).  But, in extreme cases, I cannot tolerate Hollywood's bullshit version of history.

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  • 04/05/15--12:22: And Around and Around We Go!

    In 1899, the world’s first revolving door was installed at Rector’s, a restaurant in Manhattan's Times Square.  It wasn't long after this event that comedians recognized the comic potential of the revolving door.  Several characters tangle with revolving doors in an early comedy film appropriately titled The Revolving Doors (1910).  In 1913, the team of Mahoney and Tremont used a revolving door for comic effect in their stage act.

    But it was Chaplin who succeeded in creating the first classic revolving door routine in The Cure (1917).  The routine was meticulously choreographed and exquisitely performed.

    Harold Lloyd, who was on his way to become Chaplin's chief rival, tried his hand at the revolving door routine in Next Aisle Over (1919).  I found footage of this routine that was included in a French television documentary.  Be warned, the quality is poor.

    A revolving showcase was used similarly by Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy in The Bakery (1921).

    The revolving door remained a centerpiece of comedy for decades. 

    Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

    Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in The Soilers (1932)

    The Ritz Brothers in The Hotel Anchovy (1934)

    The Three Stooges in No Census, No Feeling (1940)

     Peter Sellers in Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

    Anyone could get in on the action.  Asta the dog chases an escaping criminal around in a revolving door in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).

    A baby crawls into a revolving door at a department store in Baby's Day Out (1994).

    On television, the revolving door was central to a hotel sketch on a 1966 episode of The Danny Kaye Show.  In the sketch, Kaye plays a new bellboy whose misadventures with the revolving door infuriates the hotel manager (Harvey Korman). 

    The animation community has loved these animated doors. 

    Pluto's Judgement Day (1935)

    A Date To Skate (1938)

    Bellboy Donald (1942)

    Rabbit of Seville (1950)

    Dixieland Droopy (1954)

    How does the revolving door fare in more modern comedy?

    Elf (2003)

    Comedy was once pantomime and choreography, but now it's flailing and vomiting.  But, the same year that Elf was released, Jackie Chan worked out a clever revolving door routine for Shanghai Knights (2003).

    This way out, my friends.

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  • 04/05/15--16:13: A Funny Medical Disorder

  • We are here today to talk about an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, which is known by doctors as a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.  It may be hard to believe, but this disorder has been a reliable source of comedy.  Amusement comes from the fact that, when a person experiences this contraction, their vocal cords are forced to close and they emit a loud "hic" sound from their throat.  The disorder is known by us more common folk as a hiccup.  The hiccup is something that people have likely laughed uproariously about since the beginning of mankind.  Hiccups have gotten more attention in comedy films than other similar afflictions, including coughs, yawns and sneezes.

    Hiccups can be brought on by intense emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement or happiness.  Home remedies for hiccups include headstanding, drinking several glasses of water, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, and eating a large spoonful of peanut butter.  Frightening a person with hiccups really helps.  A person reacts to a sudden fright with a gasp, which relaxes their diaphragm and reopens their vocal cords.  You can see that we have in this ailment the makings of good comedy.

    Let me list hiccup routines of film and television in chronological order.

    A 1909 Gaumont comedy, A Sure Cure, presents the comic efforts of wife to rid her husband of the hiccups.  When a number of remedies prove unsuccessful, the wife sees that she needs to take more drastic measures.  The wife makes several attempts to frighten her husband, but nothing that she does works.  As a last resort, she summons her mother to their home.  The terrifying sight of his mother-in-law brings the husband immediate relief.

    Charley Chase found a unique way to use hiccups in Tell 'Em Nothing (1926).  Chase, a divorce lawyer, receives an unexpected visit at his home from a pretty blonde client (Vivien Oakland).  He hides the woman under his bed when his wife (Gertrude Astor) arrives home suddenly.  Oakland gets an attack of hiccups, which Chase tries to conceal by pretending the hiccup noises are coming from him. 
    Bebe Daniels helps to cure Neil Hamilton of hiccups in Take Me Home (1928).

    Charlie Chaplin introduced humorous sound effects into his comic repertoire in City Lights (1931).  At a party, Chaplin accidentally swallows a penny whistle.  Having the whistle lodged in his throat brings on a distressing case of hiccups.  The funny twist is that, every time that he hiccups, he makes a whistling sound, which annoys a singer who is attempting to perform an aria.

    Oswald does everything he can to cure his dog, Elmer, of hiccups in Elmer, the Great Dane (1935).

    Fred MacMurray applies his unique expertise to cure Carole Lombard of hiccups in Hands Across the Table (1935).

    A barber develops hiccups while cutting a man's hair in Once Over Lightly (1935).

    Dopey hiccups bubbles after he accidentally swallows a bar of soap in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

    Joe Penner gets an attack of hiccups whenever he kisses a girl in Millionaire Playboy (1940).

    A chronic case of hiccups causes Merle Oberon to seek medical help in That Uncertain Feeling (1942).  This film establishes that a hiccup can be a psychological tic that develops when a person is anxious.  When the film opens, Oberon has just recovered from one of her reoccurring hiccup episodes and she is being advised and comforted by close friends.

    It is curious that the director, Ernst Lubitsch, avoided opening his film with his beautiful leading lady engaged in a comical hiccup fit.  Was hiccup humor not elegant or sophisticated enough for the classy director?  But, no, we do eventually see Oberon produce a hiccup.

    Daffy Duck consults a doctor to cure his hiccups in The Impatient Patient (1942).

    Dave O'Brien struggles to find a cure for his hiccups in the Pete Smith Specialty short Sure Cures (1946).

    In Helter Skelter (1949), a detective (David Tomlinson) gets involved with a wealthy socialite who can't stop hiccuping.

    In Hic-cup Pup (1954), Tom and Jerry's fighting abruptly wakes Spike's son Tyke, causing the puppy to suffer a violent onset of hiccups.

    Hiccups became a considerable source of amusement on television.  An early example is an episode of The Honeymooners ("The Loudspeaker," 1956).  Ralph (Jackie Gleason) is excited to learn that he has been named Racoon of the Year, but he is in the midst of preparing his acceptance speech when he is stricken with hiccups.

    This episode may have been the template for many sitcom episodes that followed.  A character would be nervous about a big event and their anxiety would arouse hiccups.  Many actors have tried to draw laughs by making a funny chirp, squeak or "huff" as they struggled with hiccups, but Gleason sets the bar high with his wildly agitated hiccups.  This same plot was recycled on a number of top-rated shows.  Wally Cox, a symphony percussionist who's nervous about performing with a big New York orchestra, develops a bad case of hiccups in an episode of The Lucy Show ("Lucy Conducts the Symphony," 1963).

    Barney is afflicted with hiccups right before an important physical examination in The Andy Griffith Show ("Barney's Physical," 1964).  

    Fred helps Barney to get rid of his hiccups in an episode of The Flintstones ("Barney the Invisible," 1962).

    Of course, the hiccups are exaggerated to monstrous proportions in an episode of The Munsters ("Herman's Sorority Caper," 1966).

    Grandpa (Al Lewis) performs the Transylvanian Brain Freezer to rid Herman (Fred Gwynne) of his hiccups.

    Peter, who is nervous about performing in front of a big producer, gets a stubborn bout of hiccups in an episode of The Monkees ("Find the Monkees," 1967). 

    Davey, Mike and Mickey attempt to cure Peter's hiccups by scaring him with monster masks.


    Paula Prentiss is beset with hiccups as she gets ready for a party in an episode of He and She ("The Coming Out Party," 1967).

    A explosive pill gives Woody Allen the hiccups in Casino Royale (1967).

    Hiccups ruin a wedding night for Richard Dawson and Anjanette Comer in an episode of Love, American Style ("Love and the Hiccups," 1971).  The ruined wedding night was a staple of the series.

    A fantasy element freshened up this old premise in an episode of Bewitched ("Sam's Psychic Slip," 1971).  Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) develops the strangest case of hiccups.  Every time she hiccups, a bicycle magically appears.

    In a 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase plays a minister who gets hiccups while trying to deliver a eulogy.  The grieving family tries various methods to stop the hiccups.

    A king's guard gets the hiccups in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

    The anxiety premise returned after a brief respite in an episode of Alice ("Alice's Decision," 1979).  Alice (Linda Lavin) has her big break at a singing career thwarted by an attack of the hiccups.

    Bull (Richard Moll) tries a range of remedies to get rid of hiccups in an episode of Night Court ("Futureman," 1990).

    Roberto Benigni makes himself a nuisance with his chronic hiccups in Down By Law (1986).

    Who knew that a rhythmic series of breathing spasms could be so funny?

    The Three Stooges in Men In Black (1934)

    The Transylvanian Brain Freezer


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  • 04/25/15--15:36: "Pay the Two dollars!"
  • Eugene and Willie Howard
    A highlight of the Broadway show "George White's Scandals of 1936" was Willie and Eugene Howard's comedy sketch "A Slight Case of Murder."  Literature scholar Jim Bernhard, author of the "Words Going Wild" blog, described the routine as follows:
    The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer [Eugene]. . . They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor.  The subway conductor points to a sign indicating a $2.00 fine for spitting.  Willie wishes to pay the fine, but the lawyer, as a matter of principle, will not let him.  Penalties escalate, as the lawyer unsuccessfully fights the fine and Willie pleads, "Let's pay the two dollars."  But the lawyer is obsessed with vindication - and Willie is ultimately sentenced to death in the electric chair.  The lawyer finally obtains a pardon for Willie, and as they return home on the subway, Willie denounces the lawyer for destroying his life.   He becomes worked up again and inadvertently spits on the subway floor.  Blackout.
    The routine was re-created with Victor Moore and Edward Arnold for the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies.

    The routine was extensively reworked for a 1952 episode of the Abbott and Costello Show called "Jail."

    Bernhard explained that the phrase "Pay the two dollars" became a widely known idiom.  It came to essentially mean "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."  The line turned up in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959).  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman specifically credited the Willie and Eugene Howard sketch in the film's DVD commentary.

    Additional Note

    I expanded my handcuff routine article to acknowledge additional renditions of the routine, including an early version performed by Johnny Arthur and Anita Garvin.

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  • 04/25/15--17:09: Fun in a Telephone Booth
  • Lou Costello in Who Done It? (1942)
    Today, we will look at the origins of the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Alexander 2222."  Here is the routine as I first saw it.

    All evidence points to the fact that the routine was introduced by Harry Watson, Jr., as  part of the Broadway show "Odds and Ends," which ran for 112 performances from November 19, 1917 to January 18, 1918. 

    Watson continued to perform his "Odds and Ends" routines, which also included his "Battling Dugan" boxing bit, on the vaudeville circuit from 1918 to 1921.  Reports in Variety show that Watson played the act extensively in New York theatres (Palace, Colonial, Riverside) as well as San Francisco's Orpheum theatre.  Reviews were consistently good.  In June, 1919, a Variety critic reported that Watson was "laughing hit" with his "funny telephone bit" at the Riverside theatre.  The critic added, "The present chaotic condition of the telephone service has made Watson's act funnier than ever."

    Other comedians began to perform variations of the routine in other venues.  Joe Bennett performed the routine under the title "Telephone Tangle" at Chicago's Kedzie theatre in September, 1919.  But no vaudeville observer had any doubt as to the source of the material.  The Variety critic specifically praised Bennett for "elaborat[ing] on the idea carried out by Harry Watson in his specialty in 'Odds and Ends.'"  For years, Watson maintained his status as the originator of the routine.  The routine was duplicated in "Big Wonder Show," which debuted at New York's Columbia Theatre in September, 1921.  Variety noted that, by performing "a verbatim lift of Harry Watson, Jr.'s vaudeville act," George P. Murphy furnished "the funniest scene in the show."  Burlesque comics Benny Platt and Frank "Rags" Murphy struggled futilely to impress audiences with familiar routines in "Steppin' Out," a show that debuted at the Mutual theatre in January, 1925.  Variety reported, "Platt and Murphy. . . [get] the most with a telephone booth idea probably inspired by Harry Watson's."  Elements of Watson's act could also be found in Harold Lloyd's struggles to make a call on a public phone in Number Please (1920).

    Watson set aside the routine while he performed in other Broadway shows, including "The Passing Show of 1921" and "Tip-Toes."  He later revived the routine in 1925, showcasing his telephone booth antics in grand style at the Hippodrome theatre.  A Variety wrote, "Watson with little change from the now hardy perennial, the telephone and 'Battling Kid' skits, got plenty of laughs.  The audience didn't seem to have been surfeited with his stuff.  He now has a pair of banjoing boys between scenes, a welcome relief and a vivid surprise that Watson would change his act at all." 

    The routine remained durable.  Watson returned to the Hippodrome with the act, now called "In a Telephone Booth," in December, 1928.  A report in Variety dated August 22, 1928 indicated that Fox had engaged Watson to film the sketch for a sound short.  Unfortunately, the short was never made.  As it turned out, Watson retired soon after his Hippodrome appearance.  

    The routine was forgotten until it appeared again in the Abbott and Costello feature Who Done It? (1942).

    A variation of the routine titled "Number Please" (the same title as the Harold Lloyd film) was performed by Keenan Wynn in The Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

    A Motion Picture Daily critic reported, "This is the old gag about getting long distance calls through in two seconds but failing to reach a friend in the next block."  This certainly was a funny basis for a routine, which has allowed this comic business to remain as funny today as it was in 1918.  Thank you, Harry.

    Let me now take this opportunity to give a rundown of other entertaining uses of the telephone booth.

    The first telephone booth was installed in a Connecticut bank in 1889.  By 1902, telephone booths could be found throughout the United States.  Vaudeville entertainers soon recognized the comic potential of this device.  Rieny Craig and James A. Welch's 1907 act "Hello" was, according to Variety, built around a "burlesque telephone booth."  The same year, Euson's Theatre in Chicago introduced comedian Harry Bryant performing what Variety described as a "threadbare telephone booth episode."  In 1916, Tom Coyne performed at New York's Olympic Theater in a comedy act called "The Telephone Booth."  The routine had Coyne hiding inside a telephone booth to avoid an irate man.  The irate man, determined to harm Coyne, resorted to energetically rocking the booth.  If there was more to the act than that, it was not revealed in Variety's write up of the act.

    A stock gag in early silent films had a fat comedian getting wedged inside a telephone booth.  In Losing Weight (1916), big-bellied Hughie Mack struggles to extract himself from a telephone booth, finally freeing himself when the strain of his great bulk causes the structure to burst apart. 

    In 1921, the Six Juggling Bernsteins used a telephone booth at the center of an act called "Fun in a Telephone Booth."  According to Variety, the act was well-received.  The Variety critic wrote, "[T]heir quick passing of telephone books [was] loudly applauded."

    Shipwrecked Among Animals, a 1922 short comedy produced for Universal's Century series, opens with the sinking of a steamship, the S. S. Sadness.  As he struggles to stay afloat in the ocean, sailor Harry Sweet sees a telephone booth floating among the ship's debris.  Sweet climbs inside the telephone booth and attempts to phone up a rescue party.  The Film Daily critic wrote, "In the middle of the sea he calls for a number but gets the busy reply."

    In Three Ages (1923), Buster Keaton is able to escape from a police station when he unwittingly steps inside a telephone booth that is being moved out of the building.

    In Out of Order (1923), Neely Edwards and Bert Roach have come up with a movable dummy telephone booth.  They simply need to set up their telephone booth on a busy street corner and wait for an unsuspecting patron to enter to make a call.  According to Exhibitor's Trade Review, "[T]he usual nickel is deposited and falls into a tube that sends it speeding into [a] waiting hat outside."

    Eddie Cantor performs a comic monologue in a phone booth in the Paramount short That Party in Person (1928).

    In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Jean Harlow corners Chester Morris in a telephone booth for some torrid smooching.

    Laurel and Hardy get stuck in a telephone booth with a drunken Arthur Housman in Our Relations (1936).  Blogger Movie Mag described the scene as "Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera." 

    Felix Adler, one of the film's writers, had scripted a similar scene for the Fox short The Complete Life (1926).  The earlier routine started out with a tipsy man stumbling into a phone booth, which he has mistaken for a cab. 
    Kent Taylor locks feisty rival Irene Hervey in a phone booth in The Lady Fights Back (1937).

    "Busy Line, 4142" (1938) was a radio drama that unfolded within the confines of a phone booth.  Essentially the same idea was behind Joel Schumacher's 2002 feature Phone Booth.

    According to The Film Daily, a telephone booth helped to provide a "swell gag" to The Cavalcade of Stuff (1938).  The narrator,  F. Chase Taylor (radio's Colonel Stoopnagle), explains that the telephone booth is too cramped and hot to be comfortable.  Footage shows a sweaty fat man squeezing inside a telephone booth and a dithery woman with packages trying to settle herself inside a booth.

    The pay phone became a source of laughs in a number of television sitcoms, including Gomer Pyle ("Gomer and the Phone Company," 1966), The Bill Cosby Show ("The Fatal Phone Call," 1969), Love, American Style ("Love and the Phone Booth," 1969) and The Brady Bunch ("Sorry, Right Number," 1969).  My favorite of these episodes, though, is the 1951 Amos 'n' Andy episode "The Rare Coin."  When Kingfish accidentally deposits Andy's valuable rare nickel into a pay phone, Andy tears apart the phone booth in a desperate effort to retrieve the coin.

    Slacker buddies Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter travel through time in a telephone booth in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).

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  • 05/27/15--18:20: Random Bits

    Imogene Coca was featured in a version of "Slowly I Turn" included in the "All Fun" revue, which debuted at New Haven's Shubert Theatre on November 21, 1940.

    In the early days of the Twentieth century, Irish monologist Frank Fogerty became known for the catchphrase "Ain't I right, boys?"

    I found an interesting "stuck" routine.  Margaret Cullington gets her backside stuck on a block of ice in the Universal short comedy Simply Shocking (1922).

    Variety: "Dick Sheppard impresses more with the eccentricity of his comedy than the character work he does.  He shows his versatility by doing as many as four comedy characters in one frolic."

    For years, I have only had access to a cut-down version of Lupino Lane's Movieland (1926).  But, recently, film collector Dave Glass found five minutes of excised footage that he was able to restore to the film.  The picture quality of the new footage is poor, but the content of the scenes is exceptional.  First, we have a cameo from Lloyd Hamilton. 

    Then, we have a unique scene of Lane trapped in a revolving room. 

    Mr. Glass posted the full film at the following link:

    Slim Summerville and Bobby Dunn tangle in Universal Pictures' restaurant comedy Why Wait? (1924).

    Bert Roach encounters a "clocked face Chinaman" in The Mandarin (1924).

    Double exposure allows Guy Bates Post to confront his perfect double in The Masquerader (1922).

    A fine illustration of Max Linder appears in this advertisement for a 1919 comedy The Little Cafe.

    Stan Laurel appears as a mama's boy in a 1923 Roach comedy Mother's Joy.

    Norma Nichols, Larry Semon and Frank Alexander appear in a scene from a 1921 Vitagraph comedy The Fall Guy.

    Smaller companies produced and distributed many of the short comedies that entertained audiences in the 1920s.  Grand-Asher distributed several Monty Banks comedies, including The Southbound Limited (1923).

    Their release schedule also included comedies from Joe Rock and Sid Smith.

    Rock's "high and dizzy" comedy The Sleepwalker is featured on top and Smith's rural comedy Lucky Rube is featured on the bottom.

    Arrow Pictures always had an interesting variety of comedies on their schedule.  Featured below is a mummy comedy (For the Love of Tut), a pirate comedy (Captain Applesauce) and a marital comedy (Almost Married).    

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  • 05/27/15--18:28: Girls Always Got Laughs
  • Daphne Pollard in "The Greenwich Villages Follies"

    The purveyors of entertainment have always been willing to showcase a funny lady.  Two funny ladies were singled out for praise by Caroline Caffin in her 1914 book Vaudeville

    Caffin wrote, "One of the funniest of [the fun-makers] is Kate Elinor, whose spontaneous, rollicking absurdities seem to gush from an unfailing spring.  Her cheery good humor and inconsequent comicality have earned for her the name of the 'Human Billikin.'  Never was a woman less troubled with self-consciousness.  Her face is one broad, expansive smile which seems to radiate from the top of her little nob of hair, tightly screwed to the size of a shoe-button, right down to the sole of her formidable looking boots, and from every angle of her square-built frame.  She is the most familiar of friends with her audience, not only as a whole but individually and separately.  You could fancy that she calls each one of them by his first name and knows his wife and how old the baby is.  There is a gesture she uses, to mark when she thinks her points have hit the mark.  She points her finger, as though it were a pistol, at some individual in the audience, screws up one eye as though to sight and clicks with her mouth to make the sound of a shot.  This is done with an offhand carelessness just to keep things lively.  And then that giggling, deprecating flap of the hand, with the broad, good-natured smile accompanying it it is quite her own and is just the gesture that a Billikin should make.  Her audience is speedily engulfed in laughter like a rock at high tide.  And how she responds to and gloats over their mirth, and reabsorbs it to radiate it on them again."

    Caffin wrote with great fondness of Isabel d'Armond.  She noted, "Her tiny, laughing, piquant personality with its air of droll seriousness, has something of the intentness of a child at play.  Dressed in the most freakish of costumes and with lines that are often more than a little risque, she carries them all off with this air of absorbed briskness, as unmindful of the laughter of her audience as Kate Elinor is responsive to it.  I remember her in absurd pantalettes and a very unmanageable hoop-skirt.  Her preoccupation with this unruly garment and apparent annoyance with its uncouthness, all the while seeming to try to carry off her embarrassment without attracting attention, was as cleverly depicted as it was laughable.  She can dance, too, very neatly and nimbly.  So can her partner, whose legs, describing wild circles and arches far above her head make him seem, in comparison with her tiny figure, like some huge daddy-long-legs."

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  • 05/27/15--18:51: The First Tramp Comedians 
  • Nat Wills
    Bruce Johnson, the official World Clown Association historian, wrote, "The earliest performance of a tramp character I have found is Jim McIntyre and Tom Heath who began their long running tramp act in 1874."
    Jim McIntyre and Tom Heath

    Caroline Caffin wrote in her 1914 book Vaudeville, "Whatever may be the name or setting of their particular sketch, the true intent of MacIntyre and Heath is to provide a medium for amusing dialogue, anecdote and repartee. . . The contrast, however, in appearance between these two fun-makers - the small, meagre, stumbling, fumbling manner of the one and the portly, pompous, imposing deportment of the other - makes a fine groundwork on which to build varying inventions of mirth-provoking incongruity."  The team come across in Caffin's description as a forerunner to Laurel and Hardy.

    McIntyre and Heath in "The Ham Tree"

    Other popular tramp comedians were Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, Lew Bloom, James Harrigan, George Rowland, Paul Barnes, Charles R. Sweet, and Nat Wills.
    Bert Williams

    W. C. Fields

    These men wore their rags proudly.  Bloom was billed as "tramp comedian,""tramp impersonator,""tramp monologist" and, at the peak of his career, "The Great Tramp."  Rowland was sometimes billed as "The Great Tramp," too.

    George Rowland
    Sweet, who played the piano, was known as "The Musical Tramp."  Wills, vaudeville’s "Happy Tramp," was one of Stan Laurel's idols.  Johnson wrote, "[Wills] was a vaudeville headliner.  He was one of the first entertainers to perform at the famous Palace Theater, and he appeared in the 1913 edition of the Ziegfield Follies.  He was known for topical humor.  During World War I, he would read telegrams he found in a trash can."  An example of one of Wills' funny telegrams: "From a troop commander to Allied headquarters, GERMAN TROOPS ISSUED LIMBURGER RATIONS.  WE FIND THEIR TRENCHES UNAPPROACHABLE."

    Nat Wills

    Wills was most famous for his "No News" routine.  Johnson wrote, "Wills created 'No News,' one of the most famous and copied vaudeville routines.  He played a servant reporting to his absent master on the telephone, saying, 'There's no news - except that you don't have to bring home any dog food - well, because the dog died - he was trying to save the baby - from the fire - the one your wife started when she ran off with the chauffeur.  Except for that there is no news.'"

    The original closing scene of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) had a phonograph playing a newly recoded version of "No News" in the background as Joseph Cotten visits Agnes Moorehead in a gloomy boardinghouse.  On the record, a man returns from a journey and asks his servant if there is any news.  He is told that the dog has died.  As the servant explains the circumstances of the dog's death, the man learns by degrees that the whole city that he has long considered home has been destroyed.

    McIntyre and Heath

    Reference Sources

    Caffin, Caroline.  Vaudeville.  New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

    Higham, Charles.  The Films of Orson Welles.  Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1970.     

    Johnson, Bruce.  "Nat Wills, The Happy Tramp."  Charlie the Juggling Clown.

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    Laurel & Hardy in A Chump at Oxford (1940)

    A Photoplay reporter, Jack Wade, brought up this Chump at Oxford scene in an article entitled "We Cover the Studios."  He wrote, "Done up in Eton jackets and collars, [Laurel and Hardy are] practicing a screaming comedy gag which [screenwriter] Harry Langdon informs us is known as the old vaudeville 'ghost in the pawnshop' routine.  It consists of Stan sitting on a bench in front of a hedge and puffing a calabash pipe.  Meanwhile, through the hedge an arm steals, and mixes him all up with a cigar, matches, and what not.  It takes a long time for Stan to realize he has three arms, but meanwhile everyone else is howling."  The "Ghost in a Pawnshop" routine was, as Langdon said,  a "screaming comedy gag" in various vaudeville environs.  The routine was based on a Commedia dell'arte routine called "Lazzi of Fear."

    Reference Source

    Photoplay, Volume LIII., No. 7, July 1939. 

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    I return to you today to once again discuss the venerated mirror routine.  Not long ago, I joked that I expected to one day find hieroglyphics to prove that this prolific and longstanding routine was performed in ancient times.  Well, guess what?  German sports historians Wolfgang Decker and Michael Herb found that "mirror dances" were documented in ancient Egyptian pictorial representations.  It's not exactly the scene from Duck Soup, but it establishes some basic elements of the routine.

    The mirror has always been an intriguing theatrical device in its ability to raise deeply personal issues of vanity, identity and delusion. 

    In honor of my German friends Decker and Herb, I hereby present two German versions of the routine.  This first scene adheres fairly closely to the Schwartz Brothers' version of the routine.

    Wolf Albach-Retty and Theo Lingen in Seven Years of Bad Luck (1940)

    The Schwartz Brothers deserve much credit for the success of this classic act.  They brought the act into prominence by turning it into a class satire - the crafty servant is able to burlesque his foolish master right under the man's nose.

    Otto Waalkes and Olli Dittrich in Otto's Eleven (2010)

    Here, as an added attraction, is the mirror routine performed by Bob Hope and Victor McLaglan in The Princess and the Pirate (1944).

    Also, here is a version of the routine performed by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes.

    Reference Source

    Decker, W., and Herb, M.  Bildatlas zum Sport im Alten Ägypten.  Leiden: Brill, 1994.

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  • 05/27/15--19:56: The Sweet Spot
    I was looking at promotional material for a series of Harry Sweet comedies distributed by Universal in the early 1920s.  The plots suggest that Sweet favored larger-than-life comedy situations.  Harry converts a bathtub into an automobile in Bath Day (1922).  He flies an airplane to Mars in Hello, Mars! (1922).  In Speed 'em Up (1922), Harry comes to a farm community to sell an energizing elixir called "Peppo."  When Peppo is put into chicken feed, the chickens produce a mountain of eggs.  A mischievous little boy (Johnny Fox) pours Peppo into ice cream served at a barn dance, which causes all of the revelers to become amorous. 

    In No Brains (1922), Harry takes a job in a warehouse and soon infuriates his fearsomely large foreman.  With the foreman in hot pursuit, Harry uses a freight elevator to rush from one floor to another and back again.  This routine was no doubt a copy of the elevator chase scene in Buster Keaton's The Goat (1921).

    An Exhibitors' Trade Review items on the hotel comedy Hee! Haw! (1923) provided the following description of Sweet's screen persona: "[Harry Sweet] is the mild-mannered and inoffensive boob who goes his unruffled way in absolute disregard of the slings and arrows of an outraged hotel personnel."

    Sadly, the vast majority of Sweet's comedies are lost.  I, myself, have only seen one.  But we know enough from existing materials (films, stills and reviews) that Sweet was a unique and fascinating comedian.


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  • 05/27/15--21:20: The Pansy Dutch Act

  • Sam Bernard was an important comedian of his day.  He originated what Variety called the "pansy Dutch [act]," which was successfully copied for decades by other well-known comedians.

    The "Five Corners" neighborhood

    Bernard partnered with his brother Dick at the age of 12 to form a comedy and music act.  The two boys made their show business bow in 1876 at New York's Grand Duke Theatre, which was part of the notorious "Five Points" neighborhood.  The theatre was tucked away in a smoky, dark cellar under a saloon.  The brothers copied popular comedy teams, including Harrigan and Hart, Favor and Shields, and the Dockstader Brothers.  They did an Irish act, a Dutch act, and a blackface act.  After working with his brother for two seasons, Bernard created a solo act, which he performed at Morris & Hickman's New York Museum and the Herzog Museums in Washington and Baltimore.  When summer came, he worked at a theatre owned by master showman George C. Tilyou in Coney Island.

    In 1885, Bernard toured the British music hall circuit.  He had an engagement at London's Middlesex Music Hall for six weeks in the summer of 1886.  It was during this time that he refined his act, doing a "Dutch" song and dance, a monologue, and imitations.  Variety reported that, by the time that he returned to America, he was "dressed in the tight-fitting clothes of the English type, with buttons and cap."  The outfit was designed to give him a foppish look.

    Bernard's reputation increased when, in 1893, he partnered with Robert Manchester to create the "The French Folly" company, which toured in various burlesque houses.  The troupe specialized in using funny Dutch dialects in the burlesque of popular shows. 

    Throughout the balance of the decade, Bernard mostly worked with Weber and Fields, who were the premier comedians of their day.  Variety wrote, "[Bernard] went to Weber & Fields' Music Hall as stage manager when the place was first opened by that firm.  He held this position for two seasons, acting in all the burlesques and staging all of the productions."

    Sam Bernard
    Bernard reached a career high when, in 1903, he signed a five-year contract with the legendary Broadway producer Charles Frohman, who featured the star in "The Girl from Kay's,""The Rollicking Girl" and "The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer."  At this point, he was one of the biggest comedy stars on Broadway.  Year after year, he was showcased on stage by the most important theatrical producers, including Frohman, George Lederer, Lee and J. J. Shubert, and Florenz Ziegfeld.  The celebrated Shuberts, who were impressed by the large audiences that Bernard drew, kept the actor as a mainstay of their shows from 1908 to 1914.

    Marie Dressler, a grand dame of comedy and tragedy, wrote in her 1924 autobiography The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, "Bernard was, I think, the funniest comedian I ever worked with unless I except Harry Watson.  Bernard's stuff, or much of it, was impromptu and was so unctuous that it was side splitting."  She spoke of Bernard once stretching a two-minute act into twenty minutes.  She said, "We never knew where it would come from nor where it would go, but people used to rock in their chairs and we enjoyed it as much as they did."

    Sam Bernard as Juliet and Marie Dressler as Romeo.
    Dressler spoke even more fondly of Bernard in her second autobiography, My Own Life.  She wrote, "To this day, I think Sam the drollest, most spontaneous comedian I ever worked with.  Charlie Chaplin has more authentic genius, yes, but even the great Chaplin. . . lacked the trigger-like wit that convulsed Bernard's fellow players. . . Every night, Sam would introduce some new business, and, between us, we would put on a performance that was news to the author, the director, and even to ourselves.  People used to shout themselves hoarse encoring us."

    Chaplin, himself, described Bernard as "a fine artist."  He ranked the comedian along with Al Jolson and Frank Tinney ("A Revelation in Burnt Cork") as one of his favorite actors on the American stage.

    Bernard was a key inspiration to two popular comedians.  The first was Solly Ward.  Ward established himself working as the featured comedian for the Gayety Theatre from 1913 to 1919.

    Ward's comic influences were not lost on critics.  In January, 1919, Variety's burlesque critic wrote, "Occasionally Ward reminds one of Sam Bernard, and more often of Leon Errol, especially in his staggering scenes, where he almost duplicated the 'souse' actions of Errol. . ."  In the 1920s, Ward appeared in various revue shows, including "The Music Box Revue" and "Babies."  A Pathé newsreel company was allowed to film scenes from "the Music Box Revue."  This scene features Ward and Renie Riano presenting a satire of modern dancing.

    In 1931, Ward took time away from his theatre commitments to appear in a Paramount short, Coffee and Aspirin.  He found that he liked film acting.

    In the late 1930s, Ward went to Hollywood and played character roles at RKO.

     This is Ward in a scene from RKO's Living on Love (1939).

    Ward, in turn, became an inspiration to a number of young comedians.  I found one Variety review in which it was noted that Max Field "occasionally suggest[ed] Solly Ward" (Variety, October 8, 1915).  And then we have Bert Lahr.  Lahr dropped out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act.  John Lahr wrote of his father, "Lahr had no idea at fifteen what his comic image was or would be."  Lahr was able to learn much about the comedy craft by observing Ward.  He introduced his own version of the pansy Dutch character in a 1920 show, "Folly Town."  "I guess I did copy Solly Ward," said Lahr.  "All German comedians copied someone when they were young.  I learned ways of working and delivery.  Maybe I copied a few of their mannerisms, not to a great extent, though. I copied ways of carrying the body, maybe a catch line here and there.  Finally, I found my own method and threw all those other mannerisms away."

    At another time, Lahr said that it was Ward and Sam Sidman who were his greatest influences.  Sidman, another pansy Dutch comedian, happened to be the other significant comedian that Bernard inspired.  Sidman also garnered mention in Eddie Cantor's autobiography, in which both he and Junie McCree were cited as Cantor's earliest influences.

    Eddie Cantor
    Cantor clarified the reasons that he admired these comedians.  First and foremost, he held McCree in high esteem for his inventiveness.  McCree originated the "It was so cold. . ." jokes, which later became a notable part of Johnny Carson's act.  Cantor also liked an old barb attributed to McCree: "I wish I had a hotel with a hundred rooms and found him dead in every one of them."  Sidman, too, distinguished himself in many ways.  He had a popular catchphrase, which came in handy when Cantor made his stage debut in front of a rowdy audience at Miner's Bowery Theatre.  Cantor wrote, "Someone pushed me, rushed me out into a blaze of lights and Bronx cheers.  Things were flying into the stage.  Rotten fruit.  I ducked.  They wouldn't let me say a word.  Suddenly I had an inspiration.  In the burlesque show was a comedian named Sam Sidman who had a stock line.  He'd grimace, stamp his foot, put up one hand, and whine, 'Oh, dat makes me so mad!'  In my extremity I held up one hand, there was a slight pause in the clamor, and I whined, 'Oh, dat makes me so mad!'  They roared.  They let me go on.  There were even cheers from the gallery, 'Stick to it, kid, you're lousy!'  But coins began to pelt the stage.  I won first prize and picked up several dollars besides."

    Notice that Sidman's catchphrase is included in this advertisement.

    Sidman had his first big success in 1908 with a burlesque revue called "Follies of the Day."  Variety reported, "Sam Sidman gives a remarkably eccentric German and is legitimate.  It is a pleasure to see a comedian striving to win the plaudits with unassuming and sincere methods."  A follow-up review in Variety was even more enthusiastic.  The critic wrote, "For the pure comedy hit of the performance Sam Sidman as a 'Dutchman' walked away with the honors.  In the first act his catch line 'That makes me so mad,' uttered in a little squeaky falsetto, brought the laughs every time.  Mr. Sidman was consistently amusing. . . Sidman gave a letter delivery of [David] Warfield's much-imitated 'You Don't Want Her' speech than anyone else has succeeded in doing and going further with it."  The Shuberts tried to lure Sidman away from "Follies of the Day," but the "Follies" producer was unwilling to release his profitable star from his contract.  Sidman remained in demand for the next twenty years.  He did burlesque, he did vaudeville, and he did Broadway.  For this entire time, he remained influential in his field.  An unnamed Variety writer noted that his newspaper's files included many references to young comedians who had copied Sidman's mannerisms and expressions.  After he retired from the stage in 1929, the show business veteran briefly operated an actors' school.

    Sam Sidman

    Here is a scene of Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis in If You Knew Susie (1948).

    The great Sam Bernard influenced a long line of talented comedians.  Bernard begat Solly Ward and Sid Sidman, who begat Eddie Cantor and Bert Lahr.  But a thin line exists between influence and plagiarism.  This is where our story turns ugly.  It's all fun and games until somebody gets poked in the eye with a film contract.

    Lahr was a big success in the play "Hold Everything."  Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the play in late 1929.  The studio wanted to produce a screen version of the property with Lahr, but the play's producer Vinton Freedley was attracting large audiences with Lahr on tour and he refused to release the actor from his contract.  It upset Lahr greatly that he was unable to star in the film.

    Comedian Joe E. Brown said that, while he was in Detroit, he went to see Lahr in the play.  He wrote:
    After the first act I went backstage to meet the gang, many of whom I had known for years, and one of them jokingly said, "Hey, what's this I hear about you doing a picture of Hold Everything?"  Of course, he was just ribbing Lahr because Bert was an easy man to rib.

    "What's that?" yelled Lahr, immediately on the defensive.

    I fell in with the gag and said, "Well, you know, Bert, it's a pretty fair show.  I don't know what it would be like in pictures.  It's a good stage play and you've been pretty successful in it.  Of course, if I did it for pictures I'd make a lot of changes in it."  And I picked out Bert's big laugh scene in the act and said they'd probably cut that out.

    Bert went for the gag hook, line and reel.  I didn't know that he had already been ribbed about it quite a lot.  Everyone knew he wanted more than anything to do the picture.
    A few days later, Brown' agent Ivan Kahn was contacted by Warner Brothers' Jack Warner about Brown starring in the film version of "Hold Everything."  Lahr was sure now that Brown's ribbing at the Detroit theatre had been serious.

    The year before, Warner Brothers had specifically designed the short film Faint Heart to showcase Lahr's talents.  At the time, Warner Brothers was not a studio known for comedy.  Their top actors were serious folk, including John Barrymore, George Arliss, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Walter Pidgeon.  The studio looked to lighten up their fare with comedians and hoped to find a comic flag bearer for the studio.  They developed vehicles for Winnie Lightner, Smith and Dale, and Frank Fay.  It is conceivable that the studio had big plans for Lahr and used the short as a way to test Lahr's ability as a film actor.  But, due to the circumstances of the "Hold Everything" film adaptation, this association was not to be.

    Hold Everything was released on March 20, 1930.  Brown received favorable reviews for his performance.  A Variety critic wrote, "[T]he basic point of the picture is Brown.  . . What [Brown's] work in this film is going to do to Lahr when he goes on the road with his show is a big problem — for Lahr.  Brown is doing everything Lahr did in the same show unto the 'gong, gong, gong,' voice inflections on lines and mannerisms.  Brown must have seen 'Hold Everything' on the stage 18 times to lift as minutely as he screens here. . . Brown is plenty funny and the public will think that Lahr is doing a Brown when they see him. . . It's practically a cinch that this picture is going to ruin Lahr's golf for the summer."

    Lahr was too upset to see Warners'Hold Everything for himself.  Brown later said that, if Lahr had seen the film, he would have seen that what the Variety critic said was not true.  The film is lost today, which makes it impossible for us to judge for ourselves.

    Lahr shot off an angry letter to Variety.
    March 28, 1930

    Editor Variety:

    I have read the criticism of the picture, "Hold Everything," in this week's Variety.

    I am greatly surprised and amazed to find that Joe E. Brown boldly lifted my original business, mannerisms, methods and unique phrases, which I have been identified with for years, and which I interpolated in the part of Gink Shiner in the New York stage production of "Hold Everything."

    It seems an outrage that a comedian can gain profit and recognition by deliberately lifting another comedian's style of work.  This is hurting my reputation, livelihood and future in talking pictures.

    Surely there must be some redress for an artist who has worked these many years as hard as I have to establish and attain the reputation and recognition I have as an original comedian, gained by my creative and original style of work.

    I am writing this in self-protection, to let the profession, the exhibitors and executives of the picture world understand that I am the originator of all business methods, mannerisms and unique phrases used by Joe E. Brown in the taking picture version of "Hold Everything."

    Bert Lahr.
    Lahr continued to be so bothered by the matter that, in April, he consulted an attorney, M. L. Malevinsky of O'Brien, Malevonsky and Driscoll. 

    His son wrote, "Lahr was obsessed with the injustice. . . Lahr wanted to sue for defamation of character.  His lawyers advised him not to add weight to such absurd accusations by replying.  Inaction may have been wise, but it did not assuage Lahr’s temper.  He stewed over the situation for months. . ."

    Lahr's letter received much attention in the press.  The following reaction from Motion Picture Classic was typical:
    The first shot of another Broadway-vs.-Hollywood battle was fired when Bert Lahr, comedian of the stage version of "Hold Everything," threatened to throw eggs at the Warner Brothers' screen version of the same play.  And he didn't make any secret of the fact that his particular target would be Joe E. Brown, who essays his role on the screen.  Bert says that Joe copped his stuff.  He further says one comedian copping another comedian's "line" is in the same class as "lifting" plots and melodies.  He says that Joe traveled to New York to see his show and deliberately made use of his personal brand of humor, which includes "Some fun, some fun, eh, kid?" and other goof expressions. 

    Out in Hollywood Joe says "phooey," or something to that effect, and calls attention to the fact that when a producer buys the rights to a stage play he is privileged to make use of the laugh lines.

    This thoroughly reasonable explanation has in no way appeased the enraged Mr. Lahr.  He's out gunning with eggs!
    I question if a film studio has the right to anything other than the words that the playwright set down in writing.  This is the official book of the play, which has nothing to do with the nightly adlibs and other embellishments of the star.  It certainly has nothing to do with an actor's individual stage persona.  Let's say that, when Paramount purchased the rights to Kaufman and Ryskind's "Animal Crackers," they were unable to get the Marx Brothers for the film.  Would Paramount have had the right to have four other comedians adopt the Marx Brothers' costume, make-up and mannerisms?  Would it have been acceptable for Ben Blue to adopt a curly blonde wig and chase women around while honking a horn?  Lahr shouldn't have lost ownership of his personal catchphrases just because he interweaved them into the scripted dialogue of the play.

    Still, most people don't care about a comedian's influence.  They only want to know if the comedian could make them laugh.  A critic with Screenland wrote, "[Mr. Brown] works hard and fast; and if there are those on the Broadway Rialto who claim that he has imitated a certain other comedian named Bert Lahr, their contentions don't make Mr. Brown less funny."

    A Variety critic dismissed any claims that Lahr might have to the ownership of his comedy character.  The man knew his stage history.  He wrote, "Lahr started doing pansy Dutch after watching Ward, who, in turn, had based his work on the late Sam Bernard.  Lahr is still really doing the same character today with variations. . ."

    Sidman, who was by this time retired from the stage, read Lahr's letter and became irate.  He sent a letter to Variety from his home in Cleveland, Ohio.  He wrote, in part:
    I consider Mr. Lahr's letter regarding Joe E. Brown's performance in the picture "Hold Everything," outrageously presumptive, wholly without warrant, and it rather suggests the upstart.

    To me it savors too much of the fellow, who caught in the act, joins in the hue and cry of "stop thief."

    Evidently Lahr has forgotten his past, and what he did to me, and as he gave me this opportunity, I am going to remind him, during his earlier career he took me for his copy.  He took all I had, my trick of voice, my style of work, my mannerism and my personality.  Lahr aped me in everything and yet he refers to himself as an original comedian, having gained his present position by his "creative" style of work.

    Well, he's wrong.  He stripped me stark naked and stole all I had, yet through all those intervening years I did not even whimper or complain, nor did I seek recourse to a court of law as I read he is resorting to, regarding Mr. Brown.

    By the way, Mr. Lahr (ceny), will you please look up "Sid" of Variety who reviewed the picture, and make this correction, tell him it was not Solly Ward whom you copied, but me.  You'll do that for me, won't you?

    Unjustly, you feel yourself aggrieved, Mr. Lahr.  Long before you took up this line of business there was a mutual agreement between producer and actor that any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer.  Now try and get that through your thick skull.  What did you think Warner Bros. bought?  The title?  And that they would have their staff writers supply a new book? 

    You may say this letter is poison.  How else could it be?  You have with deadly poison put poison into me. 

    My fame will not be served much by the publication of this letter, but some one had to make an example of you, and I waited from the publication of your letter to now.  As no one else has replied I feel it my duty to do so and to show the theatre world that you are guilty of an act you so unjustly accused Joe E. Brown of.

    You may resent any part, or all of this letter, and may want to take legal steps.  My address is 1044 East 123d Street, Cleveland, Ohio.  I shall be pleased to accept service.

    I have left Broadway with an indifferent and light heart, still I may return - who can tell?

    Looking forward to your repentant future, I subscribe myself.

    Sam Sidman.
    It is interesting to have an actor say that "any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer."  Sidman, himself, had the experience of leaving the  "Follies of the Day" revue in 1909 and having his replacement, Harry Lester Mason, use his catchphrases.  It is hard to believe that this was not something that bothered him.  

    The controversy would not die easily.  In February, 1931, Lahr was on stage in Pittsburgh performing in the stage show "Flying High."  It was reported by Variety that an old friend, Ed Lowry, concealed a microphone in the back of a radio in Lahr's dressing room.  He then went into an adjoining room and transmitted a fake radio announcement through the microphone.  He started out, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Tattler.  He Sees All, Knows All."  He remarked that he saw no reason to go to the Alvin Theatre to see Bert Lahr at $3.85 when one could see Joe E. Brown on the screen for 25 cents.  He claimed that Lahr had "lifted" Brown's stuff entirely and it was the most obvious case of imitation that he had ever run across.  Variety noted that, in response, Lahr "hit the ceiling" and "snorted about the dressing room, threatening lawsuits."

    A similar story turned up in Lahr's biography.  John Lahr wrote,
    His friends never failed to infuriate him at the mention of Joe E. Brown.  When Lahr was playing Baltimore on a personal-appearance tour in 1933, Victor Moore and Bill Gaxton were appearing in the same town with "Of Thee I Sing," in which they both starred with Lois Moran.  When Lahr read the reviews of his opening night, he could not believe the print in front of him: "Bert Lahr, a comedian who is obviously making a living impersonating Joe E. Brown. . . It seems appalling that one comedian should be allowed to take material from another and make his livelihood …" As my father explains it, "I went over to their theater and talked to Gaxton and Moore.  I was furious. I said, 'How do you like this son-of-a-bitch doing this to me.' And they were steaming me up, saying 'It’s awful when you see this guy why don’t you punch him in the nose.'  And I said, 'Why I’m going down there and. . .'  His face shrivels up like a prune and his nostrils gape at me in mock defiance.  "Finally Lois Moran came to me and said, ‘Bert, this is a frame-up.  This reporter is a friend of mine and we were out one night with the boys— Gaxton and Moore — and they framed you.  He never even saw the show."
    The news got far worse for Lahr.  Brown was signed by Warner Brothers to star in a series of films.  Variety reported, "On the strength of this effort, he of the wide grin grabbed himself a long and sweet starring contract with Warners."  Brown became the studio's resident comedian, which is role that could have and probably should have gone to Lahr.

    It is likely that this incident caused some Hollywood executives to look warily on Lahr.  But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to Lahr's next stage hit, "Flying High," and they contracted the comedian to recreate his role for their adaptation.  John Lahr wrote, "[Lahr] gave virtually his stage performance on screen; but to the disappointment of the moguls and himself, it failed to come across as richly as it did on stage.  He did not care about films at that time."

    Here is one of Lahr's early film appearances in Henry The Ache (1930).

    In time, Lahr toned down his screen persona for films.  He later became famous for his role as the Cowardly Lion, which made great use of the many "pansy" mannerisms and speech that he had perfected throughout the years.

    Know that somewhere in the Cowardly Lion's DNA is Sam Bernard.

    Additional notes

    Variety's Artists' Forum was often a place where entertainers went to express their various grievances.  Let's take, for example, a letter posted to the forum on December 3, 1915.  Fred Whitfield of Whitfield and Ireland accused Raymond and Caverly of plagiarism.  Plagiarism claims were common in the forum, but the nature of this particular claim was somewhat new.  Whitfield argued that he and his partner had copyrighted their scenery, which included a "comedy curtain."   He wrote, "We played in the same western city with R. and C. in 1913.  At that time they were not using any comedy scenery in their act.  They beat us east and some months later introduced a comedy curtain and were given credit by press and public for a new idea. . . George Perry, of Perry and Heath, will attest to the above statement.  I am not the originator of comedy curtains, but I did originate the one we use and will protect same. " 

    Sidman, who so fervently expressed his grievances against Lahr in the Artists' Forum, may have been hot-tongued by nature.  He once made derogatory remark to a fireman who was making a customary inspection of the backstage dressing rooms at a theatre.  Variety reported, "The fireman went back to the fire chief, and as a result Sidman was yanked off the stage in the middle of the matinee Monday." 

    In 1914, Sidman traded barbs in Artists' Forum with comic acrobat Archie Royer, who had asserted that English entertainers were superior to American entertainers.  Royer wrote, "I never knew until now how far ahead of American performers English artistes were.  Why, America has nothing but ragtime singers, graduates from the kitchens and iron mills. . . As far as general show business is concerned, England is years ahead of America in everything.  The picture houses in England are better than the 'best time' over here.  My advice to all English performers is — stay in England.  Three shows a day is quite common in the best houses and five a day in the west.  I will always take off my hat to England.  Another important thing I want to tell Englishmen: Keep away from Canada.  In this town, Medicine Hat, beer is 15 cents a glass and one can't get a meal under a dollar, or rooms under $1.50 a night.  Railroad fares average 34 cents a mile and often 44 cents.  I have met eight or ten English boys that saw me in England and they all are sorry they came over.  These Canadians' are all right in their way, but they do not like a real Englishman.  I made it my special business to get to the bottom of this, and I had to 'slap' several of them for insulting England and Englishmen."

    Sidman was not too pleased.  He began, "I believe it was the late Robert G. Ingersoll who said 'As soon as I reply to one who attacks me, I raise him to my level' and for that reason I feel rather reluctant to reply to the article headed, 'A Loyal American' in Variety May 1.  I have been in England now for one year and have seen nearly all the good comedians as well as some of the bad ones, and played on the same bills with a great many, but as comparisons are odious shall pass this subject, as the English artist does not enter into this discussion at all."  Sidman's reluctance to attack Royer did not stop or slow the discussion from turning into an ugly evisceration of Royer.  The man could not help himself.  He noted, "[T]his American (?). . . arouses in me the spirit of antagonism."  He knew that Royer was American.  The question mark was meant to signify his doubt of Royer's dedication as an American citizen.  Throughout the letter, he repeatedly referred to Royer in this manner.  He accused Royer of being a failure as an entertainer, pointing out that Royer's recent act "Our Cellar Door" could only get bookings in small towns.  He accused Royer of being a liar on the scale of Baron Munchausen.  He said in closing, "[T]he most manly thing [Royer] can do is to offer his most abject and humble apology to the American artists."  That is what you call a scathing attack.

    Ben Welch
     At least one other comedian had an influence on young Lahr.  His name was Ben Welch.  Caroline Caffin wrote in her 1914 book Vaudeville, "Among the clever characterizations in [the Hebrew comedian] line is Ben Welch.  It is conceived in the true comedy vein, by which I mean that it is not grotesquely exaggerated.  The character is adhered to consistently and you are made to feel that in spite of his exuberant humor this is a real person.  Ben Welch has the true comedian's sense of the value of movement and the necessity of occasional repose.  Every gesture or twitch of muscle gives some addition of character to the impersonation.  No matter whether he is stumbling onto the stage with his shiftless, slouching, casual gait, or giving burlesque imitations of a Yiddishized Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln; or darting off the stage with bent knees and furtive stride; or by pantomime describing the jab of a hypodermic needle, the action is always exactly adjusted to the idea. There is no superfluous emphasis, no fidgety, meaningless motion ; but every muscle of limbs, face, and body is responsive and controlled. . . And, withal, he is genial, content with himself and everything around him. He finds nothing to criticize in life, for he is confident that if anything should happen to be wrong he will be able to turn it to his own advantage.  And there we get the touch of cynicism which completes the character."
    Ben Welch in costume and make-up

    An example of a Welch joke: "How do you like my suit?  A fine piece of merchandise.  I got it in a restaurant.  The fellow is still eating!"

    Bert Lahr
    Lahr never forgave Brown.  He liked to point out that Bert Wheeler also accused Brown of thievery.  Wheeler claimed that the "Little Mousie" routine that Brown often performed in fact belonged to him.  I must interject here that, of all of the comedy routines that I have ever seen, Brown's "Little Mousie" routine is by far the most unfunny.  If you don't believe me, you can see the routine for yourself.  I dare you to watch it.  Please, though, keep sharp objects out of your reach because you will be tempted to harm yourself.

    Well-established stage actors like Sam Bernard and Harry Watson found film acting to be boring and frustrating.  Bernard worked briefly for the Keystone company in 1915.  Journalist Gene Fowler wrote of the comedian's Keystone stint, "Sam Bernard suffered the agonies of an overlooked actor.  Delay drove him crazy.  Finally, he discovered a bed on one of the sets.  He made a practice of reporting each morning, then retiring to the property bed. . ."

    Book Sources

    Brown, Joe E., and Hancock, Ralph.  Laughter is a Wonderful Thing.  New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1956.

    Cantor, Eddie.  Take My Life.  New York: Doubleday, 1957.  p. 21.

    Chaplin, Charlie.  My Autobiography.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.  p. 256.

    Dressler, Marie.  The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.  New York: Robert M. McBride & Company 1924.  p. 77.

    Dressler, M., and Harrington, M.  My Own Story.  Boston: Little Brown, and Company 1934.  p. 121.

    Fowler, Gene.  Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett.  Rahway, NJ: Quinn and Boden Company, 1934.  p. 374.

    Lahr, John.  Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr. New York, Knopf, 1969.

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    Fact: Billy West, who was billed as "the foremost Chaplin impersonator," got the idea for The Kid before Chaplin did.
    Review of The Genius, The Moving Picture World (August 11, 1917): "[West] finds himself obliged for the time being to assume the paternity of a child which is not his, and the equivocal situations in which this circumstance betrays him are full of humor and bustling mirth."
    West cares for a child in The Genius (1917)
    Fact: West was a stalwart in comedy films from 1916 to 1927, but he ended his days in Hollywood as a dramatic actor.

    That's the funny West that audiences had seen for years.  Now, here, West plays a surly convict in the crime thriller Motive for Revenge (1935).

    Fact: We are familiar with Tod Browning's circus side show drama, Freaks (1932), but it is little known that this shocking horror classic had been preceded by a slapstick-heavy circus side show comedy also named Freaks.

    Freaks, a Joker comedy, was released on July 17, 1915.  Moving Picture World reported:
    "Max Asher, Gale Henry and Milburn Moranti appear in this story of a circus side show.  The scenes are not very attractive, particularly in and about the mess tent.  Some of the situations are quite funny, though the production as a whole is only of about average merit."
    An exhibitor complained, "[T]he leads made up as freaks are anything but pleasant to look at.  Milburn J. Moranti especially, as the human skeleton, is quite repelling."

    Browning went on to show audiences what repelling really was.  His side show attractions also gathered in a tent to share a meal.  Many did not find this scene very attractive either.

    There's at least one other thing that these films had in common.  The Joker comedy featured a strong man named Herculo.  The Browning film featured a strong man named Hercules.

    Believe it or not.

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  • 05/31/15--16:37: Lloyd Hamilton in the News

  • While browsing through a magazine archive, I came across a few intriguing news articles on Lloyd Hamilton.

    Let's begin our examination of these articles by going back to September 17, 1915.  An article published in Variety at that time addressed the status of Charlie Chaplin in relationship to other film comedians.  The journalist wrote, "Next to Chaplin, who is miles ahead of any others, the most popular film comedians at present are Billie Ritchie and Lloyd Hamilton."  It is curious that the author of this article failed to mention Roscoe Arbuckle, who was immensely popular at the time.  But, then, a similar comment appeared in Motion Picture News on October 2, 1915: "Reports. . . say that Charlie Chaplin is getting more popular every day there.  He is way ahead of everybody else in popularity, with Billie Ritchie, of Universal, and Lloyd Hamilton, of the Ham and Bud films, next in line."  Regardless of Arbuckle's absence from this group, we can take this as proof that Hamilton was highly regarded early on in his film career

    The press liked to pose Hamilton and Chaplin as inexhaustible rivals.  Take for instance the following entry that turned up in Motion Picture magazine in April, 1918:
    "[Lloyd Hamilton] has a five-weeks' vacation. . . and has been out every morning on the Griffith Park golf links, walking over eighteen holes, chasing the elusive ball.  Lloyd expects to get in good form very shortly, so he can hook up with Charlie Chaplin in a match game."

    Motion Picture (May, 1918) 

    "Lloyd Hamilton entertained Louis Bennison, star of 'Johnny Get Your Gun,' while the latter was playing at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles.  'Ham' and Bennison were kids together, and used to have their own theater and company, composed of themselves and a few other kids in the neighborhood.  'Ham' took Bennison out to the Fox studios to see some scenes taken, after which the legitimate star decided that the stage was much safer for one's being than the motion picture game."

    This news item is not completely accurate.  Both actors did grow up in Oakland, but Bennison was nine years older than Hamilton, which makes it unlikely that they would have been "kids together" as the author indicates.  It is possible, however, that the men had worked together in the same stage companies in Oakland and San Francisco. 

    Despite his success as a stage actor, Bennison could not have been too averse to the "motion picture game."  Not long after this news item was written, the actor starred in a series of film westerns for Betzwood Studios.  He became known to fans as "The Smilin' Cowboy."

    It is no surprise that Bennison was a heavy drinker.  Hamilton only had friends who were heavy drinkers.  It was due to their fondness for the bottle that that neither of these Oakland boys had a long or happy life.  In 1929, Bennison drunkenly used his cowboy revolver to fatally shoot his mistress and himself.  Film historian Joseph Eckhardt wrote, "After what may have been several days of hard drinking —forty empty gin bottles were found — Bennison had shot Margaret Lawrence while she slept, then turned the gun on himself.  Pinned to the door between the living room and kitchen was a nearly illegible note in Bennison’s handwriting: 'The sunset has a heart.  Look for us there.'"  An article about the complete incident can be found at  I recommend that you navigate through the entire website, which is devoted to the Betzwood Studios.  Mr. Eckhardt has done excellent work putting the site together.  I am in receipt of Mr. Eckhardt's new book, Living Large, which I will review in the near future. 

    This circumstances of Bennison's death lie in sharp contrast to the actor's Hollywood image.  This man was not the gentle, caring and cheerful individual that he portrayed in his films.

    Motography (July 13, 1918)

    "Lloyd Hamilton is now on his fifth Sunshine comedy for William Fox, and is again appearing without his mustache.  He liked playing without it much more than when he wore it after viewing his last Sunshine Comedy, so decided that he would abandon it altogether."

    Hamilton got a surprising amount of press attention for discarding his large stage mustache.  At the time, a film comedian's trademark mustache was invaluable.

    The Film Daily (November 1, 1920) 

    Review of The Simp: "Some really funny comedy business is of considerable value to this issue of the Mermaid series which generally holds up in reasonably good style.  There are several novel gags included and the action throughout is fast.  The manner in which Lloyd Hamilton pours water out of his shoe continually is the first big laugh, and thereafter they keep coming as a satisfactory rate.  The scene in which the cat enters the 'cukoo' [sic] clock is of merit and adds a touch that will score anywhere.  Another bit that will provoke mirth is that in which the thief starts to appropriate some of the funds collected at the gospel meeting and by causing "Ham" to remain unconscious, moves his hands in and out of the box in such a manner as to give the impression that the latter is responsible for what happens.  There is considerable splashing and spilling of water." 

    It was unusual at the time for a critic to single out so many gags in a comedy.  These gags were unique enough and funny enough to have left a strong impression on the critic.  The "hands" gag that he mentions is the classic "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back."

    Motion Picture News (April 21, 1923)

    "Lloyd Hamilton has completely recovered from his attack of flu, which laid the big comedian low immediately on completion of F. O. B., his next picture on the Educational program.  Hamilton was confined to his bed for ten days, but is now able to supervise the cutting and titling of this picture."

    The "cutting and titling" reference is the significant part of this story.  At his prime, Hamilton was not just an actor for hire.  He was involved in every aspect of filmmaking from story development to editing.   The top comedians of the silent era were complete filmmakers.

    Roscoe Arbuckle in the cutting room

    Exhibitors Herald (April 5, 1924)

    Roy L. Dowling of the Ozark Theatre in Alabama had unfavorable words for Lloyd Hamilton's Uneasy Feet (1923).  "Just fair," he wrote.  "Lloyd doesn't bring the laughs like he used to.  Come on, Lloyd, give us one like you used to.  You can do it."

    Hamilton set high standards with his previous work.  Many of his ardent fans expected the best from him and they were disappointed if they didn't get it.  

    Variety (October 5, 1927)

    "'What Happened to Mrs. Flora Abrams' Flapper Doll?' will be the title of a story.  Lloyd Hamilton, screen comedian, will have a chance to explain in court, according to a suit filed against him in municipal court by Mrs. Abrams, his landlady.  The doll, worth about $3, is included in a list of articles alleged missing from Mrs. Abrams' home at 8287 Santa Monica boulevard after she rented the house to the comedian.  Mrs. Abrams is asking $237 which she alleges Hamilton owes her for unpaid electric light and gas bills, cleaning, breakage and other things."

    This was one of many lawsuits that plagued Hamilton in the later years of his life.

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    I am proud to declare the week of May 31, 2015, to be Abbott and Costello Week on Anthony Balducci's Journal.  This is the first of seven daily articles that will look into the background of the team's most popular routines.  I think it's seven articles.  I used addition, multiplication and division to figure this out.

    I came across a few interesting news items as I researched this series of articles.  In June, 1938, M-G-M executives had Abbott and Costello in consideration for roles in a musical comedy, Honolulu, and went as far as bringing the team to the studio for a screen test. As it turned out, the roles went to Burns and Allen.  Instead of being Abbott and Costello's first film appearance, it became Burns and Allen's last film appearance.  Other studios expressed interest in the team.  Motion Picture Daily published the following notice on December 14, 1938: "Abbott and Costello, of the Kate Smith program, are being considered for a picture berth by Warners."  We can only guess how Abbott and Costello would have fared if they had signed with M-G-M or Warners instead of Universal.

    Abbott and Costello appeared throughout the summer of 1938 at the Steel Pier's Music Hall in Atlantic City.  Variety provided continuous coverage of the popular engagement with reviews and notices.  A review dated August 24 noted, "Abbott and Costello again borrow a burley standard."  The team was known from the start for specializing in burlesque standards.  Another review the following week stated, "Abbott and Costello grab off a few laughs with a magic skit."  This is more intriguing information.  A magic skit is not among the team's well-known business.  At first, I had no idea what the skit could be.  But, then, I remembered a sketch that the pair performed many years later on the Colgate Comedy Hour.

    An early review in the Radio Mirror likened Abbott and Costello to a bickering comedy team named Tom Howard and George Shelton.  Let's see Howard and Shelton in action.

    Here is a photo that shows Howard and Shelton literally at each other's throat.

    Welcome to this celebration of Abbott and Costello.  I hope that you enjoy it.

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    Billy K. Wells, a former comedian, wrote, produced and directed "Maids of America," a revue show that was presented in different annual editions from 1915 to 1920.  Bobby Barry was the principal comedian in the revue from 1916 to 1919.  The night that he debuted in the show, he reportedly got his biggest laughs from a scene in which he surreptitiously drank beer at a prohibition lecture.

    Bobby Barry is ready to fight it out with a showgirl.
    The show was changed from year to year.  Routines were added, routines were removed, routines were rewritten.  In 1918, Wells added a routine to the show called "Flugel Street."  Little did he know that, nearly one hundred years later, people would be still laughing at and studying this boisterous scene.  The simple premise of the routine is that a man is hired to return a container of hats to The Susquehanna Hat Company, but the workers at the hat company have gone on strike and the delivery man doesn't realize that he is acting as a strikebreaker.  So, everyone he meets and asks for directions to Flugel Street beat him up and break his hats.  The hapless sap who is tormented mercilessly in the scene was of course played by Barry.  The slicker to Barry's sap was Al K. Hall.  The actors physically contrasted one another as comedy teams usually do.  Barry was short and Hall was lanky.  Hall was abusive to Barry, repeatedly slapping him on the head with a bladder.  The routine was still part of the show in its last season, although Wells had removed the hats from scenario.  Nonetheless, a critic with the New York Clipper praised the scene for being as funny as ever.

    Joey Faye revived the routine to great acclaim at Minsky's Gaiety Theatre in the 1930s.  He kept the hats but got rid of the strike.  Screenwriter Edmund L. Hartman said, "As the comics went on, they dropped [the strike part of the routine] and anything that didn't get a laugh."  Hartman explained that, without the strike to explain the hostility of passersby, the scene became sheer lunacy.  Faye claimed at the time that he wrote the routine on his own.  He applied for and received a copyright to protect his claim of ownership.

    Universal Pictures'In Society, which was released on August 18, 1944, featured a scene in which Abbott and Costello recreated the "Flugle Street" routine.

    In February, 1945, Joey Faye threatened to sue Universal for illegal use of his copyrighted work.  Within days, Billy K. Wells came forward with his own accusations.  He sued Universal Pictures Company, Universal Film Exchanges, Big U Film Exchange, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Loew's Incorporated (a Universal exhibitor) and Joey Faye for using his old sketch without his permission.  Wells accused Faye of disguising the authorship of the sketch by changing the spelling of the title from "Flugel Street" to "Floogle Street."  Not that it mattered much, but Abbott and Costello had gone even further by changing the street name to Bagel Street.  An obstacle in Wells' case came from the fact that the writer had failed to copyright the routine, but the courts generally allow writers the option to assert common law rights of a literary property.

    Despite the legitimacy of Wells' claims, the matter did not turn out in the writer's favor.  On March 16, 1948, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the case on a legal technicality that prevented the court from sustaining jurisdiction.  Wells' attorney had an option to correct the errors of their complaint and start over again.  But, after more than two years, Wells was fed up with the matter and had no interest dragging it out further.  Faye knew that, if he tried to exercise his copyright, it would likely be challenged and declared null and void.  Without either Wells or Faye willing to assert ownership, the routine fell into public domain.

    Tom Poston is attacked on Floogle Street.

    Tom Poston performed the "Floogle Street" routine in a 1957 stage show called "The Best of Burlesque."  Tom Prideaux, a theatre critic who saw the show, found deep meaning in the routine's antics.  He wrote at length about the routine in a 1961 Life Magazine article titled "They All Keep on Looking for Floogle Street."  Prideaux examined the symbolism to be found in the sap character's "senseless mistreatment."  He recognized torment in even seemingly pleasant details.  He wrote, "[A] shameless beauty wiggles up to the Sap, unnerves him by her bumps and grinds . . ."   No one in this hostile world has good intentions for the delivery man. 

    The routine remained a beloved standard.  In 1975, Buddy Ebsen used his down time from his Barnaby Jones television series to assemble a variety troupe with his children.  The group entertained audiences throughout California with dances, songs and comedy.  The comedy parts of the show included a bit with Ebsen as "Jed Clampett" from The Beverly Hillbillies and the old burlesque routine "Floogle Street." 

    A 1964 New York Times obituary for Bobby Barry emphasized the comedian's success as the boob character at the center of the original "Flugle Street" routine.   It is good that Mr. Barry's valuable contribution to this legendary routine was not forgotten.

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