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Monday, November 23, 2020

Booking 1933 Comedy Reservation


International House Is Precode's Address

The sort of loose-limbed comedy Paramount did well when it seemed every squirrel had nested on their lot. The Marx Bros. would have made congenial tenants at this International House, called the "Grand Hotel of Comedy" by Para merchants. In fact, MGM's all-star assemblage was spoofed to powder by (envious?) others who lacked Leo's marquee firepower. Paramount could boast of "stars" housed here, the term elastic for where celebrity among these was forged, to wit radio and what was left of vaudeville. At least their trailer was frank about it: "Stars Of The Stage, Radio, and Boudoir," which was tip-off too of racy content advertising made no secret of. Paramount, in fact, generously gave of much suggestive dialogue from International House to its trailer, with graphic-spelled promise of "Bridal Suites and Bridal Sweeties." Stricter Code enforcement may have been just around a following year's corner, but Paramount would make bawdy hay while it could.

Had vaudeville become racy as this by the early 30's? Maybe so as it struggled vainly to survive. Radio we know to have been sanitary, but mainly after skittish sponsors took over programming, and that had not happened so soon as when International House on-air talent made their mark. So what was a less monitored depression-era radio like? Little of recordings survive to tell us one way or another. If we are to rank "blue" content among mass entertaining of the time, would movies sit atop a heap over radio and vaud? International House has W.C. Fields engaged in still-shocking wordplay, terms of endearment he would give up soon and forever thereafter. To Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Paramount-hired for notorious real-life sexploits, Fields blows verbal kisses, or gropes, as follows: My little tit-mouse, My little Scanty-Panty, and these on heels of excited discovery that she's sitting on a "pussy" (naturally ... a cat). I don't know of another occasion, before or after, apart from short subject The Dentist, when Fields embraced humor as censor-baiting.

International House
is much taken with mediums other than movies, one that competed with Hollywood then (radio), another that would, devastatingly so, later (television). For now (1933), TV was a crackpot invention that looked like Frankenstein's lab reject put through a sifter by Fu Manchu (and called for purpose here a "radioscope"). In fact, it's a benign Chinaman who offers the balky device to bidders at International House, sensible ones backing out of the room where demonstrations play. Television was a concept in the early 30's forged on failed experiment since the mid-20's when a first demo made clear how far the dream was from commercial usefulness. In short, this was science-fiction, and that's how International House treated it (Fields refers to the device as a "magic lantern"). Would-be visionaries said widespread TV was "around the corner," optimism based on how fast radio penetrated a market once kinks were ironed out. Trouble was television being more kink than functional, with less promise for near-future progress. In a meantime, the medium would be basis for far-out comedy and product of screwball science.

Radio was something else, to which Paramount was invested by way of half-interest in CBS since mid-1929. The company hugged radio because they could use it to promote Paramount stars and films. By 1933, a public was listening as much at home as watching in theatres, so mindful Paramount plucked flowers from broadcasting to satisfy curiosity for faces that went with much-heard voices. A lot of these had been familiar to vaudeville-goers, but most of that was past now, and lucky performers found a new home on airwaves. A much wider audience had never seen Baby Rose Marie or Cab Calloway, and wanted to. Maybe you couldn't star these and others in a feature, but as highlight for shorts or specialty in features, they were ideal. Paramount had applied this concept to The Big Broadcast in 1932, success of which spawned a decade's worth of follow-ups. International House plopping its radio acts into sputter device that was television proved prophetic for TV coming years later to rescue of these and other entertainers fallen on hard times of vanished vaud and by-then declining radio.

What are we to make of International House today? What, in fact, did watchers make of it when the thing by late-50’s landed on the very tube it lambasted? Many of the acts seem strange in the extreme. Had watchers once laughed at Colonel Stoopnagle and Bud, and if so, why? Well, yes, they certainly had, for perhaps good reason obscured by time and limited access to work the team did. Stoop and Bud did nonsense singing, verbal ying-yang, and gags spun off foolishness of their day, like Technocracy and ... television. To us and for a last ninety years, they seem impossibly quaint and dated, but in career clover, these boys were up-to-minute. Some International House acts would catch unexpected fire and speak direct to a changed culture. Cab Calloway's madhouse still seems fresh as a daisy, or cannabis leaf. His pell-mell rendition of "Reefer Man" is bald celebration of marijuana as creative stimulant, and you have to wonder from such spirited perf if he's right. International House would have been worth booking to a 70's college campus just for student howl when Cab and Company traverse decades to speak direct at a counterculture.

Baby Rose Marie --- now there's some strange. Age nine when she performed here, Rose had been on radio since three years old and had a growler voice and torchy manner in keeping with kids warped by vaud into queasy parody of been-around songstresses, only she was better at it even if lyrics got way more worldly than Baby Rose could grasp. International House has continuing value for odd assemblage of these and other acts planted firmly at its time of release, hard-core buffs and completists the admitted (and maybe sole) viewership left for same. If there's reason for International House being other than lost, it's W.C. Fields. He kept this and every Para feature in which he worked commercially viable even unto DVD. When MCA packaged his and Mae West/Marx Bros. property into a twenty-six pack for early-70's syndication, buyer stations must have wondered how the deuce to proper-exploit likes of International House, If I Had A Million, Alice In Wonderland, and others of limited Fields participation (I'd ask myself then why it was necessary to again sit through Mrs. Wiggs Of The Cabbage Patch just to see Bill arrive almost at an end).


Blogger Kevin K. said...

The top newspaper ad listing Girls In Cellophane tells you all you need to know about what was being sold here.

In real life WC Fields was a great believer in the possibility of television, from the early 1930s to the end of his life. If only he laid off the liquor, he might have been a regular guest on early variety shows.

I showed International House to my parents about 30 years ago. My father remembered seeing it in 1932, but admitted he had no idea what Cab Callaway was singing about at the time.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

For a couple of years when I served as Director Of Cinema Studies at Canada's unique experiment in alternate education, Rochdale College, I ran every film with W. C. Fields from the Universal/Paramount MCA catalogue. Rochdale had no money. They gave me the space. I had to use my own intelligence and wit to fund my program (like every theatre owner in the world). I started with W. C. Fields because the man who gave me the position said he liked W. C. Fields. At the time, having only seen his films on TV, I did not.

Fields drew crowds. I ran one film a week Monday thru Thursday. I double billed it with what I wanted to see.

Comedy works best with a house filled with a lot of young people who don't know each other from Adam. When we get a crowd laughing themselves silly at movies made before they were born there is not a trace of nostalgia involved.

More importantly I got to personally observe one of the greatest masters of comedy ever to walk the planet. Most people try to imitate Field's voice when delivering his lines. They get a laugh.

I learned, by accident, that when I delivered his lines with my own voice I got the reaction off the person I spoke them to that Fields got off the person he spoke them to.

The movie industry by muting Fields. Mae West and others so that their films pleased the motion picture code and the Catholic Legion of Decency made them safe for the folks who went regularly to church on Sunday and rarely to the movies. Doing so they lost the audience that rarely went to church on Sunday and regularly to the movies.

"It's good taste not bad taste which is the enemy," said Picasso and Salvador Dali. I'm with them.

To be continued.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Unlike today's stand up comics who rely on profanity (which I'm not saying should not be used) Fields not only could use real wit he could also juggle and shoot pool fabulously.

In the past we learned by observing and imitating a master. We did that until our own voice emerged.

Today any young person who wants to work in comedy studies what they are familiar with, what they grew up with. That is only natural. We all do that at the start.

Behind what we grow up with there is, thanks to motion pictures, an incredibly rich heritage we can study.

At one time that heritage was unavailable to us individually.When we got a chance to see these films we flocked to them. With the advent of home video we bought these films. Once we had them in our homes we stopped going to the theatres. We lost the great experience of seeing these films with a huge audience.

People showed them to their kids. For the kids the things inaccessible to us were always available. They became mom and dad's movies not theirs. They lost their specialness.

I'm not complaining just observing.

Everything has become smaller. Now with the pandemic things are getting even smaller.

As part of The Rochdale experiment the powers that be allowed within its walls the use of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote.

One would think that in that climate people would be hip to the lyrics in Cab Calloway's music, that they would know without being told that when Charlie Chaplin snorted "nose powder" by chance in MODERN TIMES that it was cocaine. They were not.

If I told the audience beforehand what to look for they caught that and more. When I did not the audience did not.

I learned a helluva lot from W. C. Fields. The most important thing I learned is to listen. When we actually listen to people instead of striving yo get our two cents in we find that our brains manufacture responses that resound.

For example when told by the rich man on whose property he has picnicked with his family, "You're drunk," Fields replies, "Yes, I'm drunk but you are crazy. The difference between us is that tomorrow I will be sober and you will be crazy for the rest of your life." Similarly when told by a woman, "If I were your wife I'd put poison in your tea," Winston Churchill replied, "Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it."

That ready wit comes from learning to listen.

W. C. Fields, known as a master of the spoken word, was one of the few masters at listening. He worked his art live on stage in theatres that could hold thousands. He had by necessity, to be his own writer, his own man.

The next time someone says, "I did what you told me and it didn't work," use Fields' reply, "Next time don't do what I tell you, DO WHAT I TELL YOU!" Use your own voice not an imitation of his. You will find as I have found that the person to whom you say that will do a full Grady Sutton.

Studying W. C. Fields and applying what you learn can make you the master of every situation you encounter. It's also a helluva lot of fun.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Stu Cook said...

"INTERNATIONAL HOUSE" was aired on WWLP-TV in the early 1970's, along with Fields' other Paramount comedies. It was shown as part of that station's MCA package of Fields/West/Marx movies. Strangely, the station's movie comedies host did not like "MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH", but the station was apparently stuck with having it in the package. What he did was show just the sequence with Fields. It's probably just as well, but having aired the entire movie would have been wise, albeit being a weak feature.

11:24 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I also remember seeing a lot of Paramounts in the early 70s on a UHF station, under the umbrella title of "W.C. Fields and Friends". No host -- Did WWLP or anybody else try for the kind of presentation Shock Theater spawned?

Since the package was owned by Universal, it must have crossed somebody's mind. These 30s Paramounts, like the Universal monster films, seemed to inhabit a shared universe.

Still enjoy the Burns and Allen bits, especially when George and Franklin Pangborn tag team in dealing with Gracie. Was there ever a moment in re-release or television when somebody bumped Bela Lugosi up to top billing? Imagining confused kids waiting for the scares to start.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

That package of Fields/Marx/West pictures MCA syndicated was titled "Comedy Festival I." It only had the Paramounts. To get the four films Fields made for Universal, stations had to buy "Comedy Festival II." The Fields pics were the big ticket items in "Festival II," which was otherwise made up of second- and third-string Universal vault oldies starring the likes of Hugh Herbert, the Ritz Brothers, Olsen and Johnson, and Joan Davis.

A local station actually bought that "Festival II" package in the late '70s. They ran the movies at midnight on Sunday, following an Abbott and Costello. Fields aside, I don't remember any of the pics being very good. It was a lot of fun getting to see them, though, especially knowing, in hindsight, that it's unlikely we'll ever get the chance to lay eyes on them again. Officially, anyway.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Considering that prior to 1940 the only way to record any sound at all was to actually cut a record - to physically carve a groove into plastic - it's no wonder that very little original 1930s radio content survives.
The sound archive truly needed magnetic tape recording technology to be developed (or as it happened, to be captured from the then-enemy) before it could really find its own groove and start to balloon.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Added attraction:

7:16 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Randy's post about the MCA syndication package brought back some memories. A Boston UHF station picked up "Comedy Festival II" (and aired it under the title "Comedy Festival") in the mid-1970s. It was great if you liked Olsen & Johnson and The Ritz Brothers -- I never missed their broadcasts. I was surprised at some of the lesser titles in the package: Hugh Herbert in MEET THE CHUMP and HELLO, SUCKER, Lupe Velez and Leon Errol in SIX LESSONS FROM MADAME LA ZONGA. I'm sure these were never run in Boston again. The offscreen announcer would tease the following week's attraction by giving the title and the star -- so for LA ZONGA he said "starring Shemp Howard."

8:05 AM  

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