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Monday, April 11, 2016

A Priceless Piece Of Vaudeville Still With Us

Conlin and Glass Do Sharps and Flats (1928)

This is a Vitaphone short, one of a couple Jimmy Conlin and Myrtle Glass did for WB between vaude engagements. Conlin and Glass were accomplished at cross talk and rough housing. They had an act called Morning, Noon, and Night that was intro'ed in 1925 and honed to perfection by time of Vitaphoning as Sharps and Flats. These eight minutes have played to convulsed crowds at both UCLA and The Film Forum, and are now part of Warner Archive's first volume of Vita shorts. Certain ancients are immune to time and can light up even after eighty-eight years. Conlin and Glass probably never dreamed they'd be first among small-timers strutting and fretting to 2016 acclaim, but there it is. Sharps and Flats does need an audience, the thing fairly begging for call/response from the mob thanks to repeat bellow of "Whoa!" from Jimmy and offscreen kibitzers. These were hid behind curtains for the vaudeville act as well, seen and unseen comics putting over "Whoa!" as abbreviated catch-phrase contagious now as then. From accounts I've read, departing crowds from recent runs were shouting it back/forth and into streets. When a funny phrase is heard for a first time in generations, it might as well be new.

Before camera Conlin and Glass worked at a same disadvantage that we do when watching their act on TV. No one to play to or react with. What's the fun of yelling "Whoa!" into a mirror? Jimmy Conlin had begun in vaudeville for B.F. Keith in 1906, that being a long time to hone your act to 1928, and Jimmy kept going until 1962 (he's in Anatomy Of A Murder, plus most of the Preston Sturges comedies). Teaming with Myrtle came first on the stage in 1918; they'd marry the same year. Deeper inquiry into long departed acts often puts human face on them: the couple had a daughter, "Bunny," in 1919, then lost her at age six in 1925. Conlin and Glass had built their skits around crossfire conversation, a handy piano, and Jimmy doing falls. Occasionally they'd take a thud, like one time at Riverside, NY, a 1922 hot weather show in a house unaired, with its audience testy. Variety reviewed the mess and noted a barely occupied house. Here was vaudeville at nightmarish pitch old-timers would recall with a shiver. Things got so bad, as in no laughs, that Jimmy finally "chucked up his hands in one scene and said to the (band) leader: Strike up and get me out of this!" The reviewer took dim view, writing that if this was part of the act, it needed to come out. If not, Conlin shouldn't have said it. There was unwritten protocol in vaudeville, and Jimmy had breached it.

Morning, Noon, and Night was introduced in 1925 at fifteen minutes. Reviews spotted "one or two draggy spots" that Conlin and Glass would presumably iron out, but "Whoa!" was there plus Myrtle pummeling Jimmy at the piano. What's interesting is evolution of the act from here to permanent record of Vitaphone's capture. There was a golf-themed song, business with a canoe and Conlin falling out of it, then the finish with Myrtle performing Morning, Noon, and Night to Jimmy's piano accompany. A thing I noted about the review was its mention of a gag idea "also being used by Matthews and Ayres," another vaude team. Trades were a vigilant monitor for stuff being "borrowed" or outright stolen between acts, and would blow a whistle where unfair liberty was taken. What we have in Sharps and Flats is rich sample of seasoned folk laying imprint for all time of comedy they'd spent years developing. Much seems ad-libbed, which it wasn't, being greatness of a routine whittled to perfection by a couple whose work is still filling houses with laughter whenever Sharps and Flats is revived.


Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Yes, it achieves that wonderful sense of fun and spontaneity despite being a well practiced routine. It's impressive how something like this still works with audiences after nearly ninety years. So much of theater and vaudeville back then was never recorded, and this was like capturing lightning in a bottle. Thank goodness for Vitaphone.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

It was interesting to see Conlin and Edgar Kennedy executed by machine guns in HITLER'S MADMAN(1943).

11:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reg Hartt supplies a You Tube link for "Sharps and Flats":

11:31 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Thinking I was in for a treat, I just watched it. I didn`t laugh once and was just hoping it would end. I guess you can`t please everyone.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

It helps with a house. I've seen it twice with revival-house audiences, both times as the closer, and both crowds loved it. Jimmy's "Whoa!" set the tone immediately and from then on Conlin & Glass could do no wrong.

First time I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised by Jimmy Conlin's musical talent. I'd seen him often as a character comic, from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE to DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA, but never as a musician.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Like the Shaw & Lee Vitaphone short, it's remarkable how hilariously bizarre (bizarrely hilarious?) something from 1928 can still be.

8:41 AM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

I didn't much like it either. Whoa! It does help with an audience, I'm sure, but--knowing my Popular Arts students of yore--you could probably have heard a mouse fart in the classroom.
When I showed MUCH more accessible acts and comedians, the kids were still a diorama. I guess we should look to the "comedies" of today to see what makes them laugh.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

I've read some accounts of act-theft; "policing" might have been non-existent outside of industry press mentions.

One: A comedy team broke up and each reconstituted the same act with a new partner. Then THOSE acts broke up, resulting in four versions of the same act in circulation.

Two: A comedian gave his material to a small-town amateur who needed something for a local event. It went over so well the amateur went pro -- with the exact same act -- and eventually landed on a bill that played before the president (Teddy?) and thereafter billed himself as "The Man Who Made the President Laugh." In time, the original comedian found himself playing to cold and even hostile audiences. It was explained to him the other guy had preceded him on the same circuit, and audiences regarded HIM as a gag thief.

Walter Kerr argued in "The Silent Clowns" that some gags were acknowledged to be public property, the challenge being for comedians to add a personal spin.

In recent times, the comedian Gallagher essentially franchised his brother to do his material in lesser venues. When the brother began going for bigger gigs and blurring the line of who was the "real" Gallagher, it turned into an ugly legal battle.

1:08 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Watched it last night, and enjoyed it. Of course I recognized Conlin from Preston Sturges and a couple others. On the topic of "theft," he did a couple of moves at the piano that I associated with Chico Marx, but who knows which came first or if they were even related?

Thought it was odd that they cut to a close-up when he removed a pin from his lapel. It was probably a common-enough gesture at the time, and would have to read to the back rows of a vaudeville house.

1:12 PM  

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