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Monday, August 06, 2018

RKO Does Some Floor Shows


Variety Is Keynote To These Pastiches

Nifty triple serve from Warner Archive of RKO "vaudeville" fillers for late 40/early 50's theatre programming, a time when double-bills held same sway as in prewar. These are curiosities that few would have known existed, in a format none of majors other than RKO ventured near. Lippert did several along canned acts line, and yes, there was need for what vaude had given before screens crowded out once busy stages. What RKO did was bring back, if briefly, their own variant on Vitaphone shorts from years before, here strung together to an hour's entertainment for back-end of bills. Footlight Varieties (1951) and Make Mine Laughs (1949) were for folks who still recalled happy balance between live foolery and what followed on film, shows where substance gave way to shadows and everyone went home satisfied. These cobble-ups were cheaper to do than any story-driven feature, Footlight Varieties with negative cost of $75K, and Make Mine Laughs finished for $63K. Both were profitable. Interesting that these were made during the Howard Hughes regime at RKO. Was HH a fan of variety during formative years?




Ingredients for Footlight Varieties and Make Mine Laughs were simple. Blend performer segments from old features or shorts, include a Leon Errol comedy of whatever vintage, plus a Flicker Flashback off backlog of RKO's shorts program, these strung among acts shot new on a mock stage with a comedic m.c., Gil Lamb (Make Mine Laughs) or Jack Paar (Footlight Varieties). Trade reviewers gave the packages short shrift, at least one couldn't imagine how Paar's humor could be less humorous, all in agreement that RKO gave ragtag a new definition. Paar and Lamb commemorate the death of vaudeville via song and gags, Paar pointing out a TV set as the box variety was buried in. This was a famous quote attributed to Bob Hope, Milton Berle, any number of comics who heard, then appropriated, it. They were right to extent of vaudeville being gone as a core of programs (although New York's RKO Palace did revive all-variety bills during the 50's, these generally built around an outstanding personality, like Judy Garland). We could dismiss vaudeville the institution as dead, but not an ocean of artists still working in formats that looked and sounded mighty like busy stages of yore. Television may indeed have been the box to which vaudeville was consigned, but it was a massive crate into which millions of viewers peeked, a following larger than old time variety ever imagined.




Performers of course faced a greater struggle. There were no routes they could depend on to see a season through. Bookings had to be got one by one, unless television offered a series, which was how bigger stars than ever were born via TV takeover. Coming late as they did, Footlight Varieties and Make Mine Laughs were good as eulogies for acts done in theatres for theatre-goers, and yet many of these persisted through much of the 50's in what was left of presentation houses catering to stage/screen combos. Varied quartets, acrobats, what not, are presented as quaint reminder of gone times, Parr and Lamb incorporated into routines so as not to rely on shtick otherwise out of date. Now it is Paar and Lamb who come off most woeful, us admiring more the procession of troupers who will not lie down even as a passing parade marched over them. But hold on --- television being so voracious might have given these old pros better than a new lease on performing life, even if "the road" of past times was closed to them. RKO did not pay mere homage with Footlight Varieties and Make Mine Laughs. Both served as quilts to cover backend of increasingly few A's offered by the company. Make Mine Laughs, for instance, went out for 100 New York territory dates with Mighty Joe Young in August 1949. Many an urban site didn't need the potted vaudeville, as they were tendering the real thing on still busy stages. Lots must have wondered if obits for vaude were  premature.




It was paste cans RKO mostly used for these compiles, old footage rifled to bring familiar names into the mix. Trouble was, RKO failed to get consent from all of them. Ray Bolger, and then Jack Haley, sued for unauthorized use, Hollywood as a whole sweating it for wider impact an unfavorable court decision might have, especially on television once the film companies gave up libraries to that medium (they all knew this was coming, but were in no hurry to get there). How much of the old stuff was recognized by 1949-1951 viewers? Probably not much, as all was innocuous, being song/dance numbers that were never distinguished to begin with. A couple of elements were common to Footlight Varieties and Make Mine Laughs: a "Flicker Flashback" that mocked silent movies, in Footlight's case, a reel directed by D.W. Griffith before 1910. Snide narration reminded us of how far movies progressed since then. Funnier were the Leon Errol comedies, him the target for wifely wrath a result of lies told, or "redheads" concealed in a closet or under the bed. I had never bothered much with Errol, but dogged if his stuff isn't funny, and now I'd like to see more, but who offers them today? (Alpha apparently, though quality may be an issue) Best intro to this comedian could well be Footlight Varieties and Make Mine Laughs. Warner's DVD is highly recommended, as it contains also Variety Time, which was the first of the RKO group.

4 Comments:

Blogger Donald Benson said...

I enjoyed all three, to a point. My favorite bit was Hans Conreid singing in mock French as Parr delivered deadpan translation ("I have a red pencil box."). That wasn't a clip from the RKO vault, but felt like a television routine ported over.

VCI has "Leon Errol Two-Reeler Comedy Collection", a good disc of ten shorts with only one I'd characterize as dodgy (the oldest, which looks and plays different from the rest). Over at ITB somebody speculated Alpha borrowed some of the transfers. They range from affable to hilarious, mini-farces ringing clever variations on the (usually) innocent Leon in panic mode. One has Leon doubling as "Lord Epping", his alter-alter ego from the Mexican Spitfire features.

VCI also has double features of the Lippert variety shows (pretty amusing if you're feeling smugly adolescent) and a disc of Edgar Kennedy shorts, which just aren't as fun despite the star. Mainly it's Kennedy's wife and her relations pushing him past slow burn to full boil and keeping him there; you keep waiting for him to get a happy fadeout but it never happens.

MGM did a semi-variety programmer "The Great Morgan" which turned up on TCM. Running about an hour, it laces together some totally unrelated numbers and shorts with a plot line of Frank Morgan getting his chance to produce a big serious drama. In retrospect, I wonder if it wasn't intended as a pilot for a series of Morgan two-reelers, then padded out.


6:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

You're a more generous audience (or, more accurately, audient) than me. I saw "Footlight Varieties" on TNT circa 1989, and was floored by the sheer cheesiness of it. Oddly, it looked like RKO's attempt to compete with TV variety shows -- only you had to pay to see it. I couldn't imagine anyone other than the most rabid Leon Errol fans sitting through it in a theater.


As for "The Great Morgan" -- I read somewhere it was released only in Europe as something of a promotion for Metro product. Similarly, TCM ran a short (MC'd by Lewis Stone) made specifically for the grand opening of a Metro theater in Cairo. After Stone's congratulatory intro, the rest of it is made up of trailers for upcoming Metro movies, including some that had already been released in the U.S.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Me. I've always liked these RKO paste-ups, my favorite being "Footlight Varieties." I suspect that after the Bolger/Haley lawsuits, RKO was being more careful about what was included in the compilations. Thus about half of "Footlight Varieties" is new footage shot especially for this feature, with The Sportsmen (invoking Leon Errol's name in a song lyric!), Liberace, Red Buttons, flamenco dancer Inesita, Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, and comic adagio dancer Grace Hartman. Hartman really works Jack Paar over, slamming into him with elbows in the face, etc. At one point the angry Paar looks straight into the camera and complains, "For Christ's sake!" Of course they overdub it with harmless dialogue!

The Flicker Flashbacks used in this series were reprinted from the original one-reel releases, with the emcee overdubbing the identical narration. One of them I remember fondly is a William S. Hart reel (issued as "The Fugitive" and reissued as "The Fandango"), in which Hart's bereaved girlfriend visits his grave, which is a ludicrously tall mound of dirt with a cross atop it. The narrator exclaims, "They must've buried him sitting up!"

There was a fourth RKO paste-up, "Merry Mirthquakes," hosted by Liberace. No fancy editing in this one, it was simply a few RKO shorts shown in succession. I've never seen it listed in any trade reviews but I have seen paper on it, so it must have played somewhere.

5:29 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Gil Lamb (who?) had his own series of shorts at RKO.

9:34 AM  

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