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Monday, November 16, 2020

Hard Sold, Soon Forgot


Cain and Mabel (1936) My Notion of a Howl and a Wow

I now call upon all to pit speech skills against formidable opponent that is Clark Gable in Cain and Mabel, specifically a staccato blast he issues part way in. Trick is to peel off the salvo as quick as Gable in his fit of fury against offscreen Marion Davies, so here goes, and feel free to read/rehearse before trying the rapid recite: I’m supposed to be a fighter, and what am I doin,’ playing post office all over the front page with a dame. (his manager timidly replies that all the world loves a lover) Oh, so I’ve switched titles, have I. I’m America’s sweetheart now, am I. Well, get this. That cheap little publicity hound has got to apologize for this, or I’ll wring her neck until the newspapers won’t be able to get a word out of her without a corkscrew. Remember, speed is the goal, a faster you go, the higher you score. Few weeks ago I was telling a friend from college about a recent happening. At one point, he stopped me to say, Wait a minute, John, you’re talking too fast. Alarmed and abashed, I slowed way down. What has 30’s distraction done to me?

Hardest-Earned Depression Dollars for Lad Going Down Streets Skipping Rope. Did Local Carnivals Not Have Geek Positions Open?

Funny Folk in Support Enhance Cain and Mabel: Roscoe Karns, Ruth Donnelly, and Walter Catlett


Watch enough of Cain and kin and you may find yourself infected by a Walter Winchell bug. Suppose I quick-time the Gable speech (not there yet, still trying), where does that get me? We’re not living in Cain and Mabel’s world anymore. I doubt we were in 1936. There is a deluxe trailer for Cain and Mabel, over four minutes, from which above dialogue came, the 16mm reel mine in 1972 for $17.50 from Glenn Photo Supply (also on You Tube). I used to drop it into campus movie shows to baffle crowds. Suffice to say, no one asked when we would see Cain and Mabel. Such tempo, plus stops-off wiseacreage, won’t again be our dish, more's the regret. Cain and Mabel represents an aggressive line in romantic comedy made necessary by teeth Code-pulled, where couples fight rather than love, beginning in fact as enemies, or victims of prolonged misunderstanding. Was there ever such sustained sublimation of the sex urge? I don’t recall any Cary Grant character sleeping with a woman after Hot Saturday and Blonde Venus. He was too busy arguing with them. Cain and Mabel might be dogmatic at that pitch were lines and situations not so clever, and dialogue so tart. Maybe it’s me too easily impressed, but this one strikes me as funnier than a stack of others celebrated for being so. Is Cain and Mabel screwball, a category I’m less enamored of than most? Thing about 30’s repartee is our wanting to remember snappy lines we can later spring on friends, but how many friends would we have, once bombarded by someone else’s wordage of eighty-five year ago?

I looked up the screenplay credit … Laird Doyle. Had not heard the name before, then found he died within a month and a half of Cain and Mabel release, age twenty-nine, taking lessons in an airplane that stalled. He had been at Warners after graduating from Stamford. There was big audience appetite for zingy word-sling during the thirties. A lot of it dates now, like comedy from any era (save possibly the silent). Humor driven by dialogue was made for the moment. Newspapers did a Cain and Mabel contest where readers submitted “Snappy Comebacks” to a chosen moment from the film, free ducats for the snappiest. Hear enough wit in movies, let alone radio listened to night after night, and who of us would not regard him/herself an Algonquin tabler in the making? Imagine chief jesters from student newspapers aiming their verbal act at Hollywood, or again, radio, where yearn for humor was unquenchable. Laird Doyle might have been such a prodigy, him a Stamford panic too good to stay campus-confined. I remember when New Yorker magazine ran caption contests for their cartoon drawings. Create the funniest and be envied by all of elites. Who of us hasn’t looked at a print photo or drawing and figured we could come up with a funnier squib?

Once There Really Were Community Sings --- Could There Ever Be Again?

I don’t wonder that movies were thought of as ephemeral. So what if Warners ordered its warehouse to throw out Convention City after some nitrate damage was found? If not for television, little of this old stuff would exist anymore. Look what they let happen to our silent film heritage. That came of guessing it had no value for TV. Movies brand new were the stuff of headlines, at least in Amusement Sections, daily bulletins, backstage happenings of crucial interest to fans panting for a Cain and Mabel to be upon them. Winds might blow from a week to months, depending on push applied to publicity. Important projects got more grease, naturally. Looking at Cain and Mabel’s pressbook, or pages devoted to it in trades, fan mags, even mainstream periodicals, you would think this was the Treaty from Versailles, or cure for Hookworm. An always clogged pipe of distribution meant no subject could stay atop awareness. Soon as we were told to mark down and remember a Cain and Mabel, there would come another to take its front of a line place. This was the engine that drove Americans into theatres a minimum of once per week, preferably twice, or however many as purses would permit.

Back-of-camera action outlandish enough got play. If anything could happen in Hollywood, why not Clark Gable knocking cold his sparring partner, latter a “former intercollegiate champion.” Here is Gable, unversed at boxing, but being Gable, could do anything champs could in any field, just because he’s Gable. Set upon wing of publicity, the incident, bogus or not, is further embellished when Gable is supposedly offered $50,000 to enter the ring with Max Baer, a chance he demurred, because after all he's not properly trained. Was such absurdity to be believed, by anybody? I suspect if one asked Gable about all this after the “fact,” he would have no idea what they were talking about. Very real, however, was Marion Davies being billed over Clark Gable in titles and all ads for Cain and Mabel. W.R. Hearst’s money was in the "Cosmopolitan" production, also his control to large extent. Hearst policy as to Davies billing was ironclad --- she never did a talkie other than top-placed. Didn’t matter who the co-star, Gary Cooper behind her for 1934’s Operator 13, now Gable for Cain and Mabel, and he had just come off Mutiny On The Bounty, Wife vs. Secretary, and San Francisco. Certain fixes once in were not to be questioned, at least by those wanting to keep their job.

UPDATE: Scott MacGillivray sent along some caption contest samples from his Laurel-Hardy collection:

Hi, John — Your “caption contest” post sent me running to find the attached examples from 1972. The Junior Mints and Pom Poms candy brands, then based in Massachusetts, offered a Laurel & Hardy caption contest, where consumers were invited to send in their own gag lines for a $5.00 prize. 

Nice to see that Laurel & Hardy are TCM’s Stars of the Month in December. They’re drawing from most of the Laurel & Hardy library every Monday.

Best wishes — Scott


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers another instance of an actor socked by accident:

I recall a blooper reel with a clip of Dick Foran punching some hapless supporting player in the teeth. While the man groaned in pain, Foran turned away from the camera with a sheepish grin on his face. Gable was a big guy like Foran, so I could see him knocking out the unfortunate Pomeroy after the latter lowered his guard to accept what was supposed to be a movie punch. There's not enough credit in that, though, to get in the ring with Max Baer, who had killed a couple of men with his fists, three, if you count Ernie Schaff, who collapsed and died in a fight with the feather-fisted giant, Primo Carnera, but who had been badly beaten in a previous bout by Baer.

I have always wanted to be able to knock out a guy with one punch, like leading men could do to contract players in the thirties and forties--or Gable to Edgar Kennedy in "San Francisco"--but have a sense that any such attempt on my part in real life would only result in annoyance, followed by a savage reprisal.

Gable might have thought that he was being loaned out for a stinker, but remembered the loan out to "It Happened One Night." Imagine his chagrin when he actually got to see it.

I like Marion Davies in her early talkies a lot--fey, slender, androgynous creature that she was then--but by "Cain and Mabel," she had become a whole lot too fleshy. I can only think that she was still in the running due to WR's enthusiasm, but had he not eyes to see?

"Operator 13" was the first movie I watched directed by Frank Borzage. I regard him as a master now, but for years after that showing, I underrated him as a studio hack.

3:36 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

For the record, New Yorker still has a caption contest and you can enter online at
Also, I actually won contest #660:

Kind of sad snappy patter went away. As time went on, racy comedy meant:
-- Somebody trying to have non-marital sex, but inevitably failing.
-- Somebody suspected wrongly of having non-marital sex, leading to Humorous Complications.
-- Somebody ending up in a bedroom and/or partially unclad, but it's either nonsexual or doomed to fail (and it's included in the trailer)
-- Desperate double entendres, often involving breasts.
-- The implication that legal, marital sex will take place after fadeout.
-- The suspicion nobody in the movie has more than a 10-year-old's knowledge of what sex is.

"Bachelor in Paradise" checked most of the boxes, even though couples with children implied they knew the basics, at least.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Snappy patter is sound entertainment.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Knocked into next week - During the filming of the first season episode (Night of Terror) of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, personal favorite Phyllis Coates (as Lois Lane) was off mark just enough that criminal thug Frank Richards (as Solly) popped her squarely on the jaw, sending her to Palookaland. As soon as crew people revived Phyllis, director Lee "Roll 'Em" Sholem yelled, "OK, let's do it again before her face begins to swell."

Where's OSHA when you need them?

7:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

At first glance, I thought that newspaper headline said that Gable was offered $50,000 to fight a bear, which would have been even better than Woody Allen boxing a kangaroo:

10:09 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great post, as usual! I will suggest, however, there are still examples of breakneck patter out there in contemporary entertainment. Exhibit A.; THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL features dialogue velocity from continuing characters that will set your head revolving. Show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has made a career of jam packing wit, and words, in every line.

10:22 AM  

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