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Monday, May 09, 2016

Robert Youngson Enters Leo's Den

Youngson/Metro's Big Parade Of Comedy Clips

What we now take so for granted ... TCM had a day of comedy last week that I'd have died for in the late 60's: Laurel-Hardy, The Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello --- are new fans being won by these? Much is writ of present day historians forged upon Robert Youngson compilations made between 1957 and 1970. One of what TCM had was MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy, a mid-way Youngson (1964) and not regarded his best, yet I did start-to-finish in nostalgic glow not only for funsters excerpted, but as reflect on Bob as seeming lone voice on behalf of oldies that really weren't so old at the time. He had way of making past seem ancient past. "A quarter-of-a-century ago," his narrators would intone, but honestly, what's twenty-five years? To me, that seems like yesterday afternoon. Would a modern Youngson mourn the distance between us and Hot Shots! or City Slickers? These are a quarter century gone too, but maybe time trips lighter since 1991. After all, we lined up to see Star Wars redone, with grizzled principals aboard, after thirty-eight years. Has there ever been such gulf surmounted in a whole history of movies? So many of Youngson's Big Parade were still marching in 1964, others buried before our lifetimes. Of all his mash-ups, this was most uneasy mix of still-active and long-gone.

Parade was Youngson's first foray into talkie clips. It's been conceded since that sound was not his friend. From promising start of long-unseen silent highlights (including Buster Keaton's The Cameraman), we are amidst, for balance of length, dialogue sections of mixed interest. There's emphasis on sight-gagging where Youngson could find it, thus a tall dose of Dave O'Brien falling down in Pete Smith Specialties, these largely unknown to 1964 youth (the Smiths were available to TV, but no station around me used them). A lot of the sound stuff needed context to work, a problem Youngson always had with excerpts, but not so niggling where he stuck to silents. Clark Gable staging a fake bombing raid makes sense, and gets laughs, when you've watched Too Hot To Handle up to that point. Standing alone, and in need of narration to make sense of it, the routine lays flat.

Youngson's search was for slapstick, which you'd not expect to find in a Garbo vehicle, but to his credit, here is a skiing bit from Two-Faced Woman that works nice as stand-alone, and not needful of explanation as to the film's complicated narrative set-up. This plus famed "Garbo Laughs" highlight from Ninotchka did what her whole career otherwise couldn't --- made Garbo seem a fun personality accessible to a new generation not awed by her remote and chilly image. For that, the long-retired actress should have broken silence to send Bob a letter of thanks. MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy lost money. Had Youngson's audience dwindled down to just kids? ... or maybe these clips were too familiar from late, late shows. A problem could have been folks proposed as funny who weren't necessarily funny folk, like aforementioned Garbo and Gable, but Youngson stuck to known comedy quantity where he could, and there was plentiful footage to draw from. Trouble was, it wasn't necessarily these clowns at their best.

1964 was pre-dawn on the Marx Brothers as Big Men On Campus, and Youngson evidently didn't trust their verbal wit to carry segments he'd use, thus a train-buggy chase that source feature Go West spent over an hour building up to. Most would have said then, and certainly now, that the Marxes don't register at slapstick speed, their part slowing the Parade way down. Robert Benchley was also best when verbal, but here at least his awkward reactions to social stress (a hotel check-in, dentist office, crowded theatre) are brief and straight to a point. Youngson had quaint compulsion to pen lyrics for theme songs he'd assign to Benchley, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, whomever else he took particular fancy to. Sometimes a clip choice was precisely right to demonstrate what made a star great, as with Marie Dressler's resigned response to a drunken Wallace Beery in Tugboat Annie. In this one moment, we understand why Dressler was irreplaceable, least of all by ham-fist-and-bray Marjorie Main, who thankfully isn't part of MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy.

Youngson appreciates best the silent clowning. There's wild fooling, like mass of humanity pouring out a mansion's front door and down steps like a waterfall, this clip yet to be identified even by experts, but what a bizarre few feet. Who but Youngson, let alone in 1964, would have brought up the Arbuckle tragedy in connection with the disgraced comedian's nom-de-plume direction of The Red Mill, from which extract with Marion Davies is shown. How many realized it was Arbuckle that guided The Red Mill as William Goodrich? I assume that was insider info that Youngson was revealing for a first time. Ditto his use of Dane and Arthur, popular and prolific in their day, touched also by tragedy in Dane's case (not addressed by RY) --- but has anyone since 1964 given us scenes, let alone features in entirety, of this team's work? --- which based on China Bound and Detectives highlighted, look illuminating, if not essential, to grasp of late silent comedy.

The big get for the silent portion is The Cameraman, an early demo outside Rohauer revivals of how great Buster Keaton was in his prime. The feature lends itself well to excerpting, Youngson aware that this is the jewel among MGM laugh properties from pre-talking era. Word is they ran off a print that Youngson took home, its resurface after his death paving way for insertion of footage missing from elements Metro successor Warner Bros. was heir to. Chalk up rescue of The Cameraman to Youngson then, plus more recent recovery of the second reel from Battle Of The Century, another thought-vanished reel that was part of his estate and since utilized to put the Laurel and Hardy short for a most part right (only a couple minutes still missing). I wonder if any cast/crew on Keaton's beach pics for AIP (what he referred to as "pajama pictures") happened to see MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy and spoke to Buster about it. Surely someone in his orbit brought word that The Cameraman was back on screens, at least in part. Would Keaton have made trek downtown to see Youngson's handiwork?

Jean Harlow was a biggest deceased name in 1964, thanks to a lurid bio and two sleazy pics in preparation based on lies let loose by the book. Youngson gave her due, of course, and so supplied the curious their first glimpse, outside television, of the real Harlow, who by 1964 seemed an other-worldly sex goddess with alabaster skin and hair to highlight fact she'd been gone a generation. Her final scene in Dinner At Eight, with Marie Dressler, gets Parade airing, a certainty wherever "Best Of MGM" is topic, the company having used the clip before in anniversary shorts (Harlow also gets lion's share of footage in Parade's theatrical trailer, the film's pressbook making her a primary selling point as well). Recognition of the Thin Man series is confined mostly to dog Asta, a common thread run through scenes from at least four of the series. Again Youngson ducked verbal sparring to put emphasis on the visual, in this case pooch antics where dialogue played no part. Youngson might have wished he had more of W.C. Fields, seen here in David Copperfield, the Great Man, like the Marxes, on eve of youth's discovery and embrace. Time-honored Laurel and Hardy, Youngson's luckiest charms, get music overlaid upon the egg-crack routine with Lupe Valez from Hollywood Party, which was at least fresh, if not particularly funny, and a dance from Bonnie Scotland has advantage of being self-contained, thus easy to extract. I watched Big Parade Of Comedy, deleted it, then realized I didn't have a DVD. Does Warner Archive have this one on their drawing board?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Unless we have seen an audience of several thousand people reduced to jello by having laughed so hard through a sustained series of gags we have no idea how far motion picture comedy has fallen.

Youngson's films brought that back to theaters for a brief moment.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

John, you'll just have to wait until the Liberty brings PARADE back for a Saturday kiddie show.

10:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

And that's indeed how I saw "The Big Parade Of Comedy," on a Saturday triple bill with "Tarantula" and "The Hustler," North Wilkesboro's ultimate entertainment bargain for 1964.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! Growing up I loved the Youngson films, knew the early ones practically by heart since the TV stations ran them constantly (the programmers must have loved 'em too... you could edit them to fit any time slot!) BUT actually seeing one on the big screen was kind of a white whale thing for me. I would hear of one popping up as the second bill with Disney stuff three counties away, or see the drive-in ad with one listed as the tail end of a triple feature (Connecticut drive-ins were notorious for truncating films to accommodate multiple bills, so even if I had talked the folks into taking me, I probably would have been disappointed.)

Did miss out on a local screening of BIG PARADE but that one seem to pop up in syndication almost overnight. When I did see it, I still liked the silent material best. And, at the time, I had just seen THE BIG STORE less than a month before, so I picked up on a couple of sight gags the Marxes apparently borrowed from Dane and Arthur for that big chase finish!

Oddly enough, I did catch some ersatz Youngson jobs at kiddie matinees (CRAZY WORLD OF LAUREL & HARDY, WORLD OF ABBOTT AND COSTELLO and THE GREAT CHASE) but I always missed the boat on the real McCoy until a campus showing of a 35mm print of FOUR CLOWNS. Half full auditorium, but it still went over big.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Very slightly off topic, but the joy of seeing THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! in 1974 with a wildly enthusiastic audience was one of the best times I ever had. What a revelation on so many levels. I saw TE! four times that year.

7:53 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

I caught all of the Youngson films in theaters thanks to the Wallace and Ladmo Saturday matinees, and saw both FURTHER PERILS OF LAUREL AND HARDY and FOUR CLOWNS in first run, and as I have always said, these films, along with television reissues like COMEDY CAPERS, MISCHIEF MAKERS, FUNNY MANNS did more to create a whole new generation of silent comedy fans than James Agee ever did, and the Youngson compilations still kill with a live audience, he really did know how to present these films in a way that sold them to modern audiences.

I've always found it ironic that the same thing happened when he moved from Fox to MGM that happened to the comedians who moved to that studio. MGM'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY does indeed suffer from the patented M-G-M blandardization that happened to Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello when they stepped foot on the lot, then again, what can one expect, MGM wanted Youngson to do a in-house tribute to their "classic" comedies, and he did the best with the material he was handed. The Compilations lack of success at least guaranteed that the second and last compilation on that contract, LAUREL AND HARDY'S LAUGHING TWENTIES was pretty much done as a standard Youngson compilation (with a scaled back orchestra for the musical score) but was also released by MGM with little fanfare and Robert returned to Fox for his last two finished compilations.

Ironically, at the time he died in 1974, Youngson was working on another compilation for MGM called LETS GO TO THE MOVIES which remained unfinished at the time of his death, I've never been sure whether this would have been a companion piece to THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, showcasing non-musical MGM films, or that it's lack of completion is what brought on THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, which very ironically was one of MGM's top grossers for 1974.

In any event, I will happily defend Robert Youngson from various film snobs who turn their noses up at his work these days, he presents these films as comedies, not museum pieces, at the correct speeds, with good musical accompaniment and sound effects, if some of the narration has not dated so well, who cares, they still show a true affection for the films and an eye to actually entertaining someone. I know he was instrumental in sending me off on this lovely lifetime of laughs at an early age, and for that, he has my eternal gratitude.


9:08 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Speaking of THE THIN MAN...The first time I saw this was at midnight on television after a long hard day. When the film began I could barely keep my eyes open. Within moments of its start, however, I was absolutely wide awake. Experienced the same thing years later waiting for New Year's Eve with friends. Showed THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE CIRCUS. We were all nodding off. Followed it with I'M NO ANGEL with Mae West. We all were wide awake. That's the power of a really great comedy.

4:27 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Here's more information about Robert Youngson's last picture. The unfinished feature was tentatively titled THERE'S NOTHING LIKE THE MOVIES, and he got as far as a 10-reel workprint that had not yet been given a soundtrack. It was a compilation of great moments from M-G-M silents, mostly thrill footage, with spectacular scenes from BEN-HUR, THE TRAIL OF '98, THE FIRE BRIGADE, THE PENALTY, and other major features.

One of the few people who saw it was Youngson's collector friend Gordon Berkow, who said it was almost identical in structure to M-G-M'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY. Berkow wound up acquiring part of the film collection Youngson left behind. The long-lost second reel of Laurel & Hardy's THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was found among Berkow's effects.

The "Robert Youngson story" is told in the 2009 book Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward (Second Edition).

6:08 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Nostalgia entertainment usually begins either 20 or 25 years after the actual event. It is usually done at that point not for archival purposes but to gather new interest in artists that are still active and their later output feel like if it has lost shine. Although this kind of revival attitude, at least in tango, goes back to at least 1928, it became more evident during 60s.

The problem was several people by then had already died and others end up competing essentially against themselves and their past when they were younger and filled up with an energy that it is always impossible to recreate.

In movies, nostalgia is an important feature and when it is not handled it correctly, the results are usually disastrous: when the emphasis is not in the greatest of the past but in the mediocrity of the present the results are no good.

There were compilations of silent comedies long before Robert Youngson ever became famous. Usually, they were produced informally by distributors that inherited films and wanted to exploit them.

Here are a couple of posters from Argentina of two of this compilations. The two of them are probably from 1951:

And there are more of these to be rescued.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Back in the early 70s, when I was a grad student and then a teacher, the Penn State Science Fiction club showed 16mm rental films in an auditorium that seated about 2 or 3 hundred people. We charged fifty cents and were the first folks at PSU to show movies.
Our Marx Brothers films were turn-people-away popular, as was any film with Bogie.

I never saw the compilation at the heart of this article, but I started seeing Robert Youngson compilations in the theaters in the late 1950s. Later, in like 2007 when 1957 was fifty years in the past, I laughed when Youngson said, "Still as funny today as it was nearly 25 years ago." By the way, was "Battle of the Century" the one where L&H completely demolish the house of a bald, mustached man?

12:19 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Kenneth -- The L&H at the home of mustachioed James Finlayson is "Big Business." "Battle of the Century" contains the ultimate pie-throwing extravaganza.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Thanks, Tom.

9:04 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Weighing in a bit late here. I caught this on TCM fairly recently, and was surprised at the choices. It felt like an episode of a TV show rather than a movie.

Speaking of which, recalling some of the series that shaped my boomer mind:
-- Charlie Chaplin Theater, where two reelers were fitted with very familiar stock music, sound effects and narration crowded with gag lines as well as trivia. It opened with what I later knew to be scenes from a Charley Chase short.
-- SIlents Please, half-hour cuts of silent features with calmer narration.
-- Hollywood and the Stars, a syndicated show that was as much modern Hollywood as history. Remember whole episodes devoted to the making of "What a Way to Go" and "The Cardinal".
-- That's Hollywood, Jack Haley Jr. bringing the That's Entertainment formula to Fox. Much like the above; once devoted a whole episode to the Brilliant Rising Star Suzanne Somers.
-- MGM Parade, a meh effort with George Murphy in a chintzy office set introducing clips and sometimes short subjects (shorn of credits). TCM runs some from time to time.
-- Disneyland / Walt Disney Presents / World of Color, which tossed behind-the-scenes episodes into their mix.
-- The Toy That Grew Up, a possibly syndicated show on pre-PBS educational television. Silent features, famous and obscure, with appealing accompaniment. Don't remember if they had a host at all.
-- Off to See the Wizard, a brief attempt by MGM to clone Disney's hour. Animated versions of the Wizard of Oz characters hosted; the content veered more to recent films and television pilots. "The Glass Slipper" was the oldest item I remember.

6:50 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

I remember TOY THAT GREW UP very well, it came out of WTTW in Chicago and was syndicated on NET (the pre-PBS) in the mid-late 60's. It was one of the first places on television that I saw that ran complete silent features. Don Ferris was the host, and Hal Pearl played the electric organ scores. Bob Seipp was the producer of the show and his collection supplied the prints ran (I'm happy to say I recently bought a fair chunk of that collection and added it to my own). I have remembered the theme song for decades, a piano version of "The Curse of an Aching Heart".

We were lucky to get the version of CHARLIE CHAPLIN THEATER that was sans narration (it was syndicated in two versions), but the films were still step-printed and frequently had other Chaplin films cut into them to fill out the half-hour. SILENTS PLEASE was Paul Killiam's half-hour compilation/abridgement show that first ran on ABC, then was later syndicated as HISTORY OF THE MOTION PICTURE, a DVD collection of the comedy compilations from that show is soon to come out from Cinemuseum LLC.


8:52 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Ah, The Toy that Grew Up. Wonderful series from National Educational Television (WTTW in Chicago) hosted by Don Ferris, with silent features (and sometimes shorts) accompanied by live piano. Had to be the only place the 1960s audience could ever see Johnny Hines or Rod LaRocque in their prime! The prints came from private collections and from Blackhawk Films of Davenport, Iowa.

The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Theatre was a convenient way to take a crash course on Chaplin, encompassing many of his Keystones, most of his Essanays, and all of his Mutuals. The stock music was from the Thomas J. Valentino library. The narration was written by William K. Everson, and while it was interesting historically, it did tend to be redundant with the action. I remember seeing THE ADVENTURER and the narrator explained, "Charlie loses his ice cream... down his pants." Silent movies for the blind!

9:41 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Ah, THE TOY THAT GREW UP! Watched it every Friday night on our local Educational channel! THE LUCKY DEVIL, SHADOWS, THE LOST WORLD, DANCING MOTHERS, ON THE NIGHT STAGE and so many more. Donald, I had to look the show up on Wikipedia to remember the host, Don Ferris, but I'll never forget the theme music, THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Watched this on NET/PBS in Detroit about the time I got the Everson CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN...recall seeing ELLA CINDERS & LADY WINDERMERES FAN but think the run ended about then....would try to match up films with pics in the book.

7:43 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The "Toy That Grew Up" features that made the deepest impression were "Mark of Zorro" and "Cat and the Canary"; oddly I don't remember any other standard classic titles. Pretty sure William S. Hart turned up at least once; but many of the films seemed to be things I don't remember seeing elsewhere since. There were light comedies, soapy romances, a WWI comedy with I think Arthur and Dane, and probably a William S. Hart. They may have had "Phantom of the Opera", but it feels like I know it from somewhere else.

Part of the appeal was seeing things that didn't register as official classics. Not having read book chapters or articles to prep me (I thought the guy in "Cat and the Canary" was Harold Lloyd), I took the light comedies and soapy romances on their own terms, occasionally feeling smugly superior to the cliches but otherwise impressed by what I'm now guessing were often programmers.

A few years later there was a PBS (pre-PBS?) series, "The Slient Years", that focused on the biggies: "Gold Rush"; "The General"; "Thief of Bagdad", etc. Orson Welles presided over the intros, and a local savings bank gave away a sort of souvenir program with stills. The composer, William Perry, has recorded some of the scores for CD.

12:39 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

BTW, I still have a recording of the theme from TOY THAT GREW UP in my collection. I actually recorded several of Hal Pearl's scores from the show on reel to reel tape and a few years ago, when I pulled one out to run with a film (THE MAD WHIRL I think it was), when the film was over, I still had the tape running and I suddenly heard Don Ferris's voice doing the outro and then the theme about memories and nostalgia suddenly rushing back.

Yep, I also remember them running BEHIND THE FRONT, THE MARK OF ZORRO, MICKEY, DADDIES, BURN EM UP BARNES with Johnny Hines, THE TOLL GATE with William S. Hart, YOUNG APRIL, many, many more.


1:13 AM  

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