Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

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.


Blogger DBenson 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  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023