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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Curtain Call For Silent Clowns

Mack Swain and Chester Conklin are Cleaning Up (1930)

Twilight teaming for old-timers Mack Swain and Chester Conklin as heroic-in-spite-of-themselves street sweepers, their outdoor talk mostly post-dubbed amidst action shot silent as in Keystone yore of both. I say "old-timers" and then remind myself that these boys (wrong again, both were at least middle-aged here) had been screen clowning for roughly fifteen years when this subject came out, but what change sound had wrought, enough to make Mack and Chester seem like dinosaurs. Both were doing good character/comedy work as silents gave way to talk, Swain supporting Mary Pickford, Barrymore, Jack Gilbert, a royal court of screen partners, while Conklin had starred with W.C. Fields in a brace of features for Paramount release (all currently missing). Cleaning Up is a talking update of Easy Street, beat cops Mack and Chester sent to dreaded "Delancy Street" to collar one-time Greed lead Gibson Gowland, heir to Eric Campbell's musketeer of combined back lot and actual streets. Phil Ryan was the credited producer, but I'm wondering if Mack Sennett had a hand. Comedies may have talked by 1930, but most were still done after silent example. You could dial volume down and get as good yoks from Cleaning Up, misplaced noise being what, if anything, weakens it. Paramount did oodles of two-reeling in the early 30's, but few get seen nowadays, Cleaning Up one of a handful Kino-gathered for DVD.


Blogger aldi said...

Coincidentally I just watched the 1966 movie Big Hand For The Little Lady last week and now I see it was Chester Conklin's final screen appearance in an incredible career of 297 movies over a span of 53 years! (He plays Old Man in Saloon, I'll have to go back and see if I can spot him.)

3:33 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Did Universal get the Paramount shorts when they bought up the feature backlog? And did either Universal or Paramount try to sell them to television or make any other use of them? Roach/MGM, Columbia and Republic all marketed shorts and serials to TV. Recently viewed some RKO two-reelers with "C&C Television" added to the title cards.

Paramount did a series based on "Popular Science" magazine. One episode focused on the Fleischer Studio and the Popeye "Aladdin" special; that turns up all over, usually with opening titles removed.

Been trying to find a remembered piece about an early children's television series (or just a pilot?) that tied live-action Warner shorts together with animated title and bumpers. Something about a train with a short in each car.

4:27 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

The Paramount shorts and cartoons were sold to UM&M in the early 1950's for television distribution, and UM&M was later absorbed into NTA, who continued to distribute them into the 1970's. Ironically, they were then bought by Republic Pictures, who was then later bought by Paramount, so the original producers now own their original product once again.

The Jerry Fairbanks-produced Paramount shorts from the 40's and 50's reverted to
Fairbanks, who first distributed them to TV himself, then licensed them to other syndicators as time went on.


6:33 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Interesting. As a kid (born in '55) I remember ancient cartoons from almost every studio getting heavy television exposure, but live action shorts were limited to Three Stooges and Little Rascals (although those were omnipresent) and Laurel and Hardy (surprisingly rare in the 60s, and often in strange shortened / retitled versions). Oh, and the syndicated "Charlie Chaplin Theater", which gave Chaplin two-reelers stock music and Robert Youngson-style narration.

Maybe I was born too late or got the wrong channels, but were all the other live action shorts getting regular play anywhere?

In hindsight, surprised that Warner and/or MGM didn't take a cue from Disney (or even anticipate him) and do their own anthology / promotion hours, drawing on their shorts libraries (thus avoiding exhibitor resentment over features going to TV?). I've seen some of the MGM Parade shows on TCM, and they feel halfhearted at best: An unenthused George Murphy in a tiny office introducing clips, and occasionally a whole "Passing Parade" story.

RKO did three "varieties" features (now on Warner Archive) that came out in the TV era (Jack Parr hosts two of them). Each offers musical numbers; the bulk of a Leon Errol short; silent clips with snarky voiceover and a few fresh bits to glue it together. Each runs about an hour; you wonder if anybody was looking at then as pilots for a television series.

5:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi John,

Answering Donald Benson:

Yep, raised a bit late I'm afraid, these shorts graced television during a lot of the 1950's and early 60's, and along with those black and white cartoons began to vanish as color television became the norm, leaving only the ones with established favorites like Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and The Three Stooges still thriving on the airwaves.

Most of the major studio sound short product made it to TV, the RKO comedies with Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol, etc, were available from Guild Pictures, Screen Gems had a package of non-Stooge Columbia comedies, Some of the MGM shorts did make it to TV, the later Our Gangs of course, but all of the John Nesbitt Passing Parades were available (he had also done a new series of fifteen minute ones for TV in the mid-50's), one of our local stations ran them just before their sign-off in the wee hours for years, and there was also a package of Pete Smith and Robert Benchley comedies, and the CRIME DOES NOT PAY series as well. AAP offered a package of Warner Brothers Vitaphone shorts like the ones with Roacoe Arbuckle, Shemp Howard, Jack Haley, et all.

There was also a lot of silent comedy product available for TV syndication in the fifties and early 60's, the Al Christie silent comedies were available from Hollywood Film Enterprises with titles removed and narration and music added, Mar-Lu Telefilms and Charlie Tarbox's Film Classics Exchange had packages of silent comedies, Onyx Films had the Laff Movie package, and when they became National Telepix, they did quite well with THE MISCHIEF MAKERS, a package of kid comedies featuring Our Gang silent and other child performers, and COMEDY CAPERS, featuring a lot of silent comics.

These silent and sound comedies were used as fodder for the numerous daily kid shows that were also showing the black and white cartoons, and as general filler for all those hours local television burned in those days when the network didn't offer 24 hour programming and there were lots of independent television stations, and it's quite possible that those 16mm syndication packages also managed to preserve a lot of that material for future generations, it has certainly made me able to spend a lifetime turning up 16mm prints of a lot of that material, and a lot of it had longer shelf-lives than you would imagine. In the 1980's, when Republic Pictures owned the NTA Library, they packaged a "Matinee at the Bijou" program that offered a two-hour conglomeration of a Republic B feature, western or non-western, along with a serial chapter, and several of those afore-mentioned Paramount shorts and cartoons, keeping my VCR busy recording things like these Chester Conklin shorts and Paramount musical one-reelers into the wee hours of the night.


5:01 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

For the first time in decades, I feel I was born too late. I knew there were such things as newsreels and travelogues because they were parodied in old cartoons, and I had some exposure to the range of silent comedy via Youngson features and Blackhawk Films. But most of the universe of sound shorts was completely off my radar. It wasn't until this century that TCM, Warner Night at the Movies DVDs and other modern media introduced me to the glorious world of two-reel and even one-reel dramas and musical comedies.

Now I'm imagining a Stooges-type local show where the host serves up a Crime Doesn't Pay ("And this is why you shouldn't commit arson for profit, kids!") followed by "What, No Men?"

6:58 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Living in central PA we didn't get TV over the air (my wife's home area, near Hazelton, was the birth of CATV [community antenna TV] and she got everything from NYC and Philly on cable).
So in 1954, when I was eight and mostly TV-deprived, we were still getting the goods in our local theater. We had B-western packages, jungle packages, pirate packages, etc. Most came with a cartoon or two (roars of joy erupted if Bugs Bunny's face popped up) and a short. The Stooges were the platinum deal, but Joe McDoakes and his Behind-the-8 ball comedies were also tasty and fun.

10:51 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

In 1954, those were all still new short film product (or, in the Stooges case, some new product mixed in with a lot of stock footage, both the Stooges and Joe McDoakes shorts were made into the late 50's, serials were still in production through 1956 when Columbia made the final ones, and though Republic stopped making new serials the year before, they continued to reissue their older ones to Theaters through the late 1960's.

Cartoons continued all through the 60's, I remember seeing new Warner Bros, MGM's, and Universal Walter Lantz's (the local Nace Theater chain always ran a cartoon before the feature, and this continued into the late 1970's), Lantz lasting the longest (I think his last season of new cartoons was in 1972). Heck, Universal continued to release newsreels until 1968.

It really did depend on where one lived, the smaller town theaters still ran a lot of reissues and "full program" type of programming, just as the smaller-market television stations ran a lot of these silent and sound short comedy product to fill up their time. I recently came across ads for WLEX's Channel 18 Lexington's KIDS COMEDY CORNER, 30 minutes of Al Christie comedies and cartoons 4:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday, and WNBQ's Channel 5's JOHNNY COONS AND HIS NOONTIME COMICS, 30 minutes of silent comedies at noon five days a week as well. Our own local Wallace and Ladmo kids show ran silent comedies and classic cartoons as well as doing their own local brand of subversive comedy for nearly 36 years, as well as having their weekly Wallace and Ladmo kids matinees every weekend at various movie theaters where they ran a "full program" with their own stage show, a cartoon, serial chapter, Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy short, and features that ran the gamut from Hammer Horror films to Don Knotts features to Robert Youngson. I know this is where I was introduced to a lot of this stuff.


6:21 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Columbia kept its two-reel comedies in circulation through June 1964 (imagine Buster Keaton's PARDON MY BERTH MARKS playing somewhere with Jack Lemmon's UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE). Easily the most prolific Columbia comic in reissue was Hugh Herbert (25 reissues over 11 years), with Schilling & Lane a distant second (14 reissues over 12 years).

One group that was never reissued was the Charley Chase series. I suspect two reasons: 1) Chase was long dead, unlike the other stars who were still "current" in the 1960s (Keaton, Sterling Holloway, Andy Clyde, Harry Von Zell, etc.); 2) most of the Chase scripts had been remade in the 1940s and the remakes looked newer, as did the prints.

Columbia kept to its traditional schedule of three serials a year through 1966, 10 years after the studio stopped making new ones. The champion in the cliffhanger category was THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK, which was reissued in 1949, 1958, and 1964. Columbia's home-movie division even made up three 8mm reels from HICKOK.

11:06 PM  

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