Teams On The Ups and Downs
Residual fame must be like that same kind of pain. The height of it is gone, and most times never comes back. I admit being haunted by the ghost of Karl Dane selling those hot dogs in front of Metro gates he’d once entered as a star, and welcomed this glimpse of twilight as a major name and his being treated accordingly. Three years prior to a self-inflicted gunshot that ended it all, Karl and partner George K. Arthur set off touring Fox Wisconsin territory theatres aboard the sister ship of Lucky Lindy’s Spirit Of St. Louis. Would that some of that luck have extended to Dane, for this would be his last walk down red carpets. Keys to the city were extended in Kenosha. The boys were mobbed at airports, and six motorcycled police escorted them to city hall. Their sketch was called Fall In, which pleased fans as this was a live on stage reprise of comedy familiar from screen hit Rookies back in 1927. Shorts they’d done recently satisfied less. Six for independent producer Larry Darmour concluded their work as a team; the most recent, Dizzy Dates, being adjudged poor even by Fox showmen now receiving them as honored guests. There were radio appearances during noon hour broadcasts. You could wish for just one to have survived, but from a local station in 1931? Not a chance. Bally efforts found dummies carried down Main Streets on stretchers. He died laughing at Karl Dane and George K. Arthur, who are appearing in person at the Fox Theatre. Celebrity faded slower in the hinterlands. Middle America was always last to forget. You could energize faded lights in Wisconsin long after they’d burned out elsewhere. George K. Arthur played a single at the San Francisco Fox Theatre in April 1930 (as shown here with The Divorcee on screen), but I’m betting he got no police escort upon arrival. Stars dimmed and otherwise were more commonplace on both coasts. Returning to an indifferent California after Green Bay-Appleton-Oshkosh triumphs must have been like coming out of a dream for the two comedians.
There was tons o’ fun out west when Monogram lassoed saddle stalwarts Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson for a middle-aged go at frontier justice seeking in a series they’d call The Trail Blazers. Most trails lately blazed by these two had been to saloons and refrigerators. Ken sauced it through much of the thirties, and Hoot never met a Hershey Bar he didn’t like. And yet there was majesty in seeing them together and back in (mostly doubled) action. You respond to these embattled vets for what they’d once been as opposed to reduced circumstances their rotten luck, bad habits, and increased poverty had now placed them in. Eight hundred dollars per feature? I’ll (very grudgingly) take it, said Maynard, but don’t expect me to wear out treadmills prepping for westerns shot on budgets of $12-18,000 apiece. Today’s steroid-ed screen gladiators could take a lesson from Ken and Hoot. Just report for duty fat and sassy (or in Maynard’s case, plain belligerent) and let the audience take it or leave it. Ken took it for six of a proposed series of eight. He was buddies with Hoot, but Universal series washout Bob Baker as third wheel was strictly (Ken regarded) poison, and after one shot at partnering the Blazers, split for permanent oblivion in the wake of alleged Maynard-abuse. They brought in Bob Steele afterward, a boyish thirty-six and less needful of stunt assist. Forty-eight years young (and road worn for seemingly sixty) Ken was no less truculent, claiming Bob had insulted his (current) wife and assigning permanent enemy status to the diminutive daredevil. Hoot was fifty-one and really needed this money, trifling as it was. He’d been off screens a long time, eating dust behind state fair caravans and belly upping with a so-called Hoot Gibson Trading Post recently opened and (more recently) closed. Gibson relaxed in front of and behind cameras. His cowboy was old-style and free of sequins and spangles favored by yodelers at Republic. An expanded girth helped conceal a pistol he wore under his belt, but I’d have been yelling for a podiatrist after a day’s shooting with another six-shooter tucked down my boot, as Gibson’s was. Hoot sits out the fisticuffs, leaving most of that to Ken and later Bob. Trail Blazer westerns were outgrowths of a three’s better than one strategy that teamed up-and-comers with faded names and gave us The Three Mesquiteers (a short-term John Wayne address), The Range Busters, and The Rough Riders, among many to whom similar labels were affixed. TCM runs Trail Blazers thanks to Warner ownership, so prints are actually good, a rarity when you’re trolling series westerns. Five Trail Blazers played last month, and I watched and slept and watched them all. Give me more of Ken Maynard manhandling simple dialogue, and I’ll take his and Hoot’s attempts at comic banter over seasoned rivals anytime. These were sagebrush giants who’d earned the right to goof off and take money for nothing as they pleased. Just having them show up was (and is) more than enough.
I always thought of Salt and Pepper as that place discarded Rat Packers went to (figuratively) die. Watching it this week revealed no buried treasure, but Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford show aptitude for spy spoofing I’d too long neglected. For me, Salt and Pepper was zanier than Matt Helm and more fun than Flint. Transplants from Vegas Sam and Peter are Soho swingers whose club plays host to miscreants plotting takeover of the Prime Ministry. Dead bodies piling up in Sammy’s (crowded) suit closet result in Davis double takes worthy of Lou Costello, then minutes later he’s shooting (to death) a potential femme assassin in Peter’s bed (Salt and Pepper’s mood swings play like comic pages out of Bonnie and Clyde's book). Lawford in bad times, which began in earnest shortly after this and lasted an agonizing drug-riddled decade and a half before premature death on Christmas Eve 1984, claimed he was first to be offered James Bond. That’s probably bogus, as most players with British accents short of Terry-Thomas undoubtedly made similar boasts, but I’m thinking Lawford might actually have worked as 007. He’s properly suave, more than presentable in black tie, and possessing of voice and carriage in maturity consistent with most concepts of Bond. A shame he was kicked curbside by mercurial Frank, punished over random misunderstandings arising from a fateful weekend Jack Kennedy was to have spent at Sinatra’s Malibu pad (read Shawn Levy’s excellent Rat Pack Confidential for that story). Lawford had a (too) high voice when he sang (and spoke) at Metro in Good News and other musicals, but he gained authority in television and good feature parts like Never So Few and Dead Ringer. Cool and dapper were stocks in trade going to seed by Salt and Pepper time. He’s always walking through crowds waving to offscreen greeters, an interesting Lawford mannerism he used from Ocean’s 11 on. Teaming with Davis was product of their friendship, plus Sam was among few that stood by Lawford once he’d been banished from the Pack. Davis had his own ups and downs there as well, so what the hell, they’d start their own club (Salt and Pepper might better have been titled Rat Pack Remnants Loose In London). Salt (Sam) and Pepper (Lawford) fall down a lot and do variations on Bob and Bing’s patty-cake routine before killing heavies with machine guns. There must have been lots of empty hangers in Carnaby Street shops after Sam got through accessorizing, for here he’s aglow in a rainbow of leisure suits and Nehru jackets. His are real gone ensembles throughout and surely inspiration for what showed up later in Austin Power’s wardrobe. Most scenes begin and end with Sammy and Peter lighting each other’s cigarettes. Subduing henchmen with fists and artillery might play more nimbly with fitter leading men as most engagements degenerate into slapstick, though both stars sustain tumbles I’d have expected doubles to take. Japanese posters such as one shown here play up Davis and Lawford as straight-ahead crime-busting agents, reflecting the mosaic of sales strategies applied to Salt and Pepper worldwide. A woebegone sequel called One More Time is high on my must-see list, being directed by Jerry Lewis and featuring cameos by Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein!) and Christopher Lee (as Dracula!). Reason for the latter might have been Sammy’s major fan devotion to Hammer Films. The soundtrack album for Salt and Pepper would seem a good listen, and it’s still available, though sensibly limited to vintage cassette and LP. Selections include I Like The Way You Dance and Chase In A Mini-Moke (Sammy's onscreen performance of the former is an especial highlight). The record illustrated once sold for forty-seven cents, which sadly may be about all this movie’s reputation will ever be worth.