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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Where I Wish It Were The 20's Again ...


Cheeky Comics and Cheekier Columnists


Just saw these strips at the always engaging Silent Comedy Mafia site. They’ve been featuring “Broadway” comics from old issues of the New York Daily News, each “staged” by Mark Hellinger and captioned by him. Hellinger spent years as a Gotham nightlife gadfly before exporting his wit to warmer movie climes, result much Warner work (always dynamic), and then three he produced in the 40’s, The Killers, Brute Force, Naked City, all great. Hellinger died young, a loss I’ll not try to calculate for further marvels we would not get. But what of wonderful work he left in New York sheets? These are but drops in an ocean. Tell you what we need: An anthology of all his White Way columns, plus these funnies, plus … well, imagine other stuff Hellinger penned between drinks and wit dispense among friends. Same with a Winchell, so many others who wrote for eventual fish-wrap that was NY news. Imagine Lee Tracy or Bill Powell’s “Bill Chandler” of Libeled Lady as composite of these. We are missing out on much not to have all this cleverness between covers. There is, however, online vault of the old newspapers, so digging can get the job done. Want to experience 20’s roar and be something like a Broadway sharpie these guys were? Go read their otherwise lost columns and pick up bon mots to last a lifetime.


Mark Hellinger in Hollywood Clover

Here’s the shock of Hellinger at full tilt. He not only flouted law, endorsed violation of it, he assumed everyone else did. Did his reflect popular attitude, then conduct? I’ve wondered long if a majority felt Volstead limits were for birds, or goody-goody saps; these three-panel jibes featuring showfolk were as good as telling us just that. Easy to forget sheer level of Broadway irreverence, at least among its humor tribe. I assume cops could have raided any post-performance dressing room and found wrists aplenty to cuff. Was it Hands Off policy for celebs? You’d think so reading these nervy strips. Bert Lahr’s “You didn’t have any trouble getting the stuff, did you?” to Winnie Lightner is pure biz screw-off to law enforcement, while William Frawley reference to “my bathtub gin” skirts truth only to extent that Bill, with his resources, likely got the best stuff off boats running back-forth across the Atlantic to keep he and peers lubricated. Hellinger told his rollicking tale on nostalgia terms to a 1939 audience that had forgot how wild-woolly Broadway had once been. The Roaring Twenties is priceless for this and much else of Warner machinery, but be sure to see, ahead of the feature if possible, Hellinger’s on-camera trailer pitch where he recalls in whip-smart column style what life was like when his 20’s really roared. Good as the movie is, it could but but suggest what a no-rule playground Hellinger and Broadway’s bottomless well of talent presided over.

Thanks to Ed Watz, writer/historian who has contributed much to Greenbriar’s comment section over the years, for sharing Hellinger’s impudence at The Silent Comedy Mafia, and to Richard M. Roberts and crew for hosting that magnetic Web address.

6 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Has William Frawley always looked like Fred Mertz? Seems like it. Great post. If the government learned one lesson from the twenties it was that booze is an essential service. Now to get some oranges.

9:35 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

There were plenty of films that took alcohol and racketeers seriously. But there were as many that casually accepted the hip flask and stashed bottle as almost respectable. A few favorites:

In 1921, Harold Lloyd's "I Do" has a bit where very respectable Harold and Mildred are rolling a baby carriage down the street. It turns out they're taking a jug to be fill by a local bootlegger (Beer? Wine? Bathtub gin?). We see a house where a parade of men are roughly hauling baby carriages in the front door and handling them more lovingly as they roll out the back door. The joke is the sheer obviousness of the enterprise. Since Harold's character was by then practically a role model, that says something.

There's a silent two-reeler -- can't recall the title -- when Charley Chase ingratiates himself with his girlfriend's upright father by helping him conceal his stock of booze. Our sympathies are with Charley and the father.

In 1930, "Blotto" has Laurel and Hardy going to a flashy nightclub and ordering White Rock -- a mineral water often mixed with liquor. The waiter and one assumes the management know what's up and tacitly approve. Stan and Ollie are breaking the law, but it's framed (and perceived) as childish misbehavior, like schoolboys playing hooky and swiping the pie Ma baked.

In 1931, "Pardon Us" has the boys sent up for trying to make and sell beer (Stan evidently approached a cop as a potential customer). With the qualified exception of the operetta gypsies in "The Bohemian Girl", the boys were usually good citizens who stayed on the right side of the law unless driven by circumstances or villains. Here, violating Prohibition is established as Ollie's idea, and he's proud of it. It's a crime the audience will forgive them for, without any plot contrivances or excuses. And of course the fadeout gag is that Stan still doesn't grasp that it's against the law.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Hence the Mark Hellinger Theater...which is now the Times Square Church.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Seems like every talkie made before the repeal of Prohibition features scenes of drinking either at home or speakeasies. Often it's just a matter of fact, no moral judgement made.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Velvet_trashbag said...

Ella Raines, Ann Blythe, Hellinger, Yvonne DeCarlo and...who is the tall lovely in the black dress? Thanks!

11:49 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'm pretty sure that's Anita Colby.

12:54 PM  

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