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Monday, August 19, 2019

Were They Fish or Fowl?

Polly Moran Prays for Continuing Opportunities to Dilute Otherwise Creepy Shows Like London After Midnight

Melodrama, Meet Comedy --- Comedy, Meet Melodrama

Begone, Comic Relief!, Says Erik The Phantom to Horror Neutralizer Snitz Edwards

It was a steadfast rule since the 19th century: Never serve any genre straight. We wonder at, in fact deplore, horror films with comic relief, comedies that take romance detour, westerns where they sing and have dagnabit sidekicks. Why couldn’t our clowns and monsters be presented pure? I assumed it was Hollywood’s failing, a symptom of studio wrongheadedness, all dancing to discordant tune. But maybe we bring unreasonable expectation to these films we claim to treasure. Must they abide by our modern measure for genre entertainment? I watched Mark Of The Vampire with Bonnie Scotland to ponder the issue, both hailing from 1935. These belong to a school that taught moderation in all things, be it scares or humor. An audience might exhaust on overdose of either. Such steps were taken because a public did have, and would express, its limit. Remember what became of Phantom Of The Opera after test screenings over-spooked 1925 watchers? Comedy, lethal injection of it by current reckoning, thinned Phantom’s bitter porridge. Mark Of The Vampire was guided by lessons taught in an earlier version of the same yarn, London After Midnight, which got a gelding in script stage and never contemplated its vampires as anything other than fake. London After Midnight’s lost status amounts to divine providence, for how could the movie approach allure of its surviving stills?

Laughs To The Left Of Her, Chills To The Right ... What's Laura La Plante To Do?

All melodrama from inception gave comic relief. The things would weigh too heavy otherwise. Stage plays for a hundred years were awash with virtue imperiled, farms seized, trains and buzz saws closing in. This was heightened emotion to relieve tedium of drudge work that ate ten at least of daily viewership hours. There was more leisure by the late-1800’s, but not much more. Suspense stirred by mellers was eased by frolic performed between acts, sometimes within the play itself. Movies hewed to habit kept by generations of stage-folk. Even Griffith saw sense of prevailing rules, his Way Down East very serious (Lillian Gish on the ice flow), except when it was not (all of Creighton Hale). The Cat and The Canary (1927) stayed scary until it was expedient to be otherwise (Creighton Hale again). No one questioned a mode of operation so ingrained. If anything, the 30’s only strengthened resolve to water our drinks. Mark Of The Vampire is accurate marker of what London After Midnight had been, being a same story done the same, at least insofar as horror/hokum mix.

Where Fun Weighs Heavy On Modern Mark Of The Vampire Fans
Filmmakers were sensitive not to rock a lot of boats. Dracula and Frankenstein stepped very near an edge that copy-cats stepped over, thus Freaks, Island Of Lost Souls, and some others took licks from outraged sectors and were banned by some territories. Mark Of The Vampire had enough foolery to be farce or fright, take your pick where promoting. There is Donald Meek entering soon after credits as a fluttery medico, and later Leila Bennett as a shrieking bird-brain of a servant. These were understood to prevent scares from being too intense. Again it is stills to a rescue, Bela Lugosi, and more-so, Bela Lugosi with Carroll Borland, plus Tod Browning as director, to suggest Mark Of The Vampire means business. These were burned into consciousness of monster fandom years after the film came and went (and stayed largely gone). We figured Mark Of The Vampire had to be good just for these morsels that didn’t move, but gripped us all the same.

Learning the score of stage-to-screen tradition taught many to forgive what seemed a monstrous cheat. No, these were not vampires. Vampires did not exist, even as visuals throughout Mark Of The Vampire implied they did. What it needed, then, was reading between the frames, a same stealth applied to all films after the Code became stricter-enforced. Horror would stay hand-in-hand with comedy, especially at Universal. At least James Whale wove it better into narrative as if humor was his idea rather than foolishness imposed on him. Melodrama would more-less concede by the second wave at Universal, support staff there to fill nonsense need as though horror differed not from westerns, mystery, or straight-up comedy. You’d think that all we wanted was to laugh, but even dedicated funsters had to be tempered, especially so where feature-length contained them. Again it was to spare us exhaustion. Were the Marx Brothers too funny in Duck Soup? Fine, A Night at the Opera can fix that. Were Laurel and Hardy an excess beyond two-reels? Then give them “plot” to sustain Bonnie Scotland, first of a features-only policy to guide a rest of their career.

Weak-As-A-Kitten William Janney Supplies Romance Relief to Laurel and Hardy Antics

How Do Tears and Gloom Get Into a Laurel-Hardy Feature? Because Producers Believed We Wanted Them ...
and Maybe in 1935, We Did.

L&H had gone long routes before, perhaps to better outcome than Bonnie Scotland, but this was wayward in the extreme, a romance between non-entities (William Janney and June Lang) that pushed L&H off center-stage, at least in preview versions agreed by all to need fixing. Here again was serving a balanced meal of genres as it was assumed a public wanted them. I can’t say Hal Roach was wrong because I wasn’t there in 1935 to judge, but success of Bonnie Scotland, and for that matter Mark Of The Vampire, satisfy me that these were what customers preferred. Where do we get off imposing our druthers on viewership of 84 years past? I can’t pretend to know what went down best with those people. Cue past is a foreign country that novelist L.P. Hartley talked about: They really did "do things differently there." Maybe romance was the vegetable we needed with meat that was Laurel and Hardy. Does this also explain why cowboys sang? Go to the animal shelter and you get mostly mongrels. Watch these old films and it’s largely the same. Therein may lie the struggle we have at swelling the rank of fans. Who will show Mark Of The Vampire or Bonnie Scotland except to the already converted? 50’s TV distributors had the right idea of shaving the L&H feature down to three (or was it four?) shorts to fit in half-hour slots plus omit sub-plotting that served its purpose in 1935, but was not needed now. Purists wanted Bonnie Scotland intact, so thanks to TCM-HD, DVD, streaming and the rest, we again must eat our peas as part of the Laurel-Hardy meal. It is a price fans will go on paying so long as there is interest in this team.


Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I made an edited version of my MPEG2 file of Bonnie Scotland. I removed the horrid sub plot and it becomes a much nicer picture. Imagine having that power in 1935. I feel certain that when Roach went full features with L&H, MGM brass suggested the comedy with romantic subplot. Its interesting that Roach later ceded his rights to BS to MGM.

11:32 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Some of us enjoy our peas, but these romantic sub-plots were more like spinach boiled in water for hours.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Hopefully, there will be interest in Laurel & Hardy until the Second Coming. If, however, they are going to shown colorized a better job needs to be done than the one that has been.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is one of the biggest let downs ever.

BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is a close second.

Should it ever surface LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is going to disappoint a lot of people.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think Roach took a cue from "A Night at the Opera" when he made "Bonnie Scotland" and "Swiss Miss". A few laughs, too much music and romance.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Speaking of padding.... For years the only version of GUNGA DIN available was the re-issued cut that ran 96 minutes, not 117. I grew up loving this version and was excited when it was made clear that the original cut would be restored. ARGH! The original version is full of "humorous" bits that slow down the story. The 96 minute cut is the only one to watch, IMHO.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I had the luxury years ago of seeing Mark of The Vampire with no spoilers...I must admit I found the ending rather funny and surprising. Though the "reveal" makes ZERO sense on 2nd viewing, it never struck me as the travesty everyone makes it out to be.

4:05 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Warner Archive released "Bugs Bunny Superstar" with an entertaining and enlightening director/producer commentary. The film came out of his curated showings of Looney Tunes, where he not only identified the most surefire shorts but discovered one solid hour was the maximum an audience could digest in a single sitting. So for the movie, that solid hour was supplemented by light documentary and interviews to bring it up to feature length. Coincidence that the least diluted features of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy clock in at about an hour?

There's often more than mere "relief" in the best movies. Instead of the usual romantic subplot, the Laurel and Hardy operettas were built on the idea that the boys had somehow taken up residence in an operetta world, and were interfering with the movie's "real" story. Hitchcock of course knew how to lace comedy directly into the thrills and shocks, and other directors used comedy to soften viewer resistance -- and thus be more susceptible to unfunny stuff. "Little Big Man" prefaced its most horrific moment with a near-slapstick bit of a blind chief wandering through a battle, convinced he was invisible.

I've always been fascinated by "The Apartment", which so easily might have been either smirky sex farce or weepy wags-of-sin melodrama. Wilder delivers something else. It plays like a comedy, but the story is almost grim and the laughs don't dilute that. At the same time, it's not black comedy and even sells an upbeat ending.

5:10 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

I'll second MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, which I've always found wonderfully atmospheric, with some genuinely spooky and surreal moments, and the last scene with Bela, Carroll Borland, and James Bradbury Jr. revealing themselves to be actors to be very funny indeed. I've always said that those who belittle MARK OF THE VAMPIRE as being inferior to the unseen LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT would be wise not to bet money on it, Browning in sound is better than Browning in silence pretty much across the board so he probably found ways to improve it the second time around.

I've never had a problem with mixing humor in horror or drama, or visa-versa, just like anything else, it has to be well done. Everyone seems to love Chaplin when he adds pathos to his comedy, James Whale's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is a wonderful mix of horror and humor, the mixing becomes more palatable when these films are actually run with audiences, perhaps it's all those depressive film buffs sitting at home alone who get annoyed when a film tries to tickle them a little along with the spooks or the sobs. If you want unleavened drama devoid of laughs, go watch Carl Dreyer, or Woody Allen's INTERIORS, then one might begin to appreciate the occasional good time.


5:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, you can't beat Carl Dreyer. As one person said, his movies begin where others end.

INTERIORS is a gorgeous film by a currently much maligned director.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is flippin' gorgeous (I refrained from using the other "F" word). It is so great that the final twist of it all being a gag just plain drove me nuts which is why LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, even if it is visually superior to MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (and I have to say this, Lon Chaney ain't Bela Lugosi. As much as I love Chaney's work (and Christopher Lee's for all that) Lugosi is and always will be best damn actor to portray a vampire period.

So even if LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT should surface somewhere before I leave this realm I'm going to just as disappointed because of that damned ending. I look forward to that disappointment mightily. Besides, we already have the photo restoration version from TCM.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) I watched alone, silent and in 8mm one night in Toronto in the 1960s while I ran Captain George's Memory Lane Comic Book & Movie Memorabilia shop while George was in the hospital. Owe a big debt to that man. His store was where I started my screenings. THE CAT AND THE CANARY scared me silly silent and in 8mm. Absolutely love it.

Film buffs in the main tend to be men more interested in reel life than real life which is why their wives leave them. That is not always the case but, according to Anthony Slide's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, it's the rule. That book is a must read.

William K. Everson called THE LAUREL AND HARDY MURDER CASE a stinker. It has always been a wow when I show it.

I liked BONNIE SCOTLAND. I like anything with Laurel And Hardy. Too bad they had to grow old and die but then we all do. Fun while it lasts, though.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I've seen both the reconstructed "London After Midnight" and "Mark of the Vampire" at least two times each, and have no idea what the hell is going on in either of them. I'd have hoped Metro would have substituted a coherent plot before adding comic relief.

3:35 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

As for corny story sub-plotting with BONNIE SCOTLAND, then again in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, and SWISS MISS-- they never bothered me. The ones that DID, started with GREAT GUNS--and continued POST HAL ROACH, PLUS sharing the screen with unfamiliar strangers shouting a lot of bad script! I can enjoy these later films only when I remind myself, of course, that 'ANY L & H ,is BETTER than NO L & H at all...." And I love the music in 2 of the titles mentioned above; no one ever seems to comment on tunes scored in their 'musicals'! (.. although I can do WITHOUT the 'TUBA' in SWISS MISS....).(!).

5:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I never thought much of MURDER CASE until I watched it with my daughter when she was 10 years old. We both laughed out loud all the way through it. But she also thought it was genuinely spooky at times!

8:47 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Consider me a traitor, but I'll take Jitterbugs over Saps at Sea any time.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Watch movies with young kids who have not yet learned what is good, what is bad, or who want color instead of black and white. You'll learn more from them than from all the film professors and theorists as one.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Kevin K. is not a traitor: Laurel & Hardy themselves far preferred JITTERBUGS over SAPS AT SEA. This was because Hal Roach wanted them to make, in Hardy's words, "cheap gag pictures" -- hourlong gag bags that had no stature or story values. SAPS AT SEA was a prime example of what both Laurel and Hardy did not want to do, which is why they took the first offer to work elsewhere.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That seems to be what the movie industry is about. First it allows talent to develop. Then it does its best to destroy it or drive it away.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Lon's vampire looks great in the close-ups but old time mellerdrama hokey in that costume.

Bela's suave elegance is vastly superior.

Still, the let down is a huge let down.

8:31 AM  

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