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Monday, March 29, 2021

Changed Times and Fresh Avenues


Statesville's Last Theatre Fall Down and Go Boom

Still I Say, Banquet Tables Never Fuller

Statesville no longer has a movie theatre. They tore the last one down a few weeks ago. It was a ten-plex folks thought would stay forever. Someone who was there for D-Day told me dozers peeled the roof off as if from a sardine can, then stripped sides so you could look in on auditoriums next to go. What is happening to picture houses reminds me of drive-ins eclipsed during the seventies. Fear of television finishing off theatrical, so acute in the fifties, sees fruition today, not via TV as we knew it, but stream sites to heap a monthly plate for what single admissions once cost. And now they play brand-new movies, windows shut between what used to be theatrical and consumption at home. I drove by the Liberty and they had Godzilla v. Kong on the “Coming Soon” marquee, but didn’t I read HBO Max has it for subscribers later this week? G v. K was supposed to be out last year, as was the latest James Bond, slated for release sooner than that. This “new” 007 will drag a long beard by the time anyone sees it.

The Liberty lures nowadays on its popcorn reputation, which is stellar. Some people stop in for a whopper box, then take it home to eat. With so few attending, seated rows apart if they do, how can distributors realize barest nickels for Godzilla Vs. Kong? My guess: Theatres, those still operative and willing to play what they can get, are given content essentially for free, loss leaders toward TV. You’d think sentiment would ease me into Liberty embrace for G v. K, my having been there after all for King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1963, then again in 1966, but what would I do but reflect on all seats filled back then? Needless bummer. Had there been Netflix and HBO Max in ‘63/66, would we have spent quarters downtown? 2021 “Opening Day” amounts to little more than tuning in. Events of last year pushed forward an outcome we were headed for anyway. Condolence to those who hoped to see Justice League or Godzilla vs. Kong on Imax screens. Entertainment is forever though, and will always be served somehow or other. Trouble for older viewers is change so convulsive. I no more understand modern movie business than how to rebuild a broke transmission. Film gone from theatres? A ten-year-old might easier absorb that blow, adjust as we all must to what I'll mordantly call progress. Imagine if this had happened in the 30’s or 40’s, when going to shows really was important to people. Statesville once had several hardtops, plus drive-ins dotting county roads. Think anyone will build another theatre there … ever? Only if they’re looking for a quicker way to starve.

I don’t resist so long as there are Blu-Rays and TCM. We had on Netflix the other night. Ann wanted me to see their update of The Haunting of Hill House, a series with ten episodes so far. I could not tell the characters apart. They all look and talk the same. Has actor training become so rigid as this? The Haunting tells of a tormented family, parents and five offspring, accent on the torment. I search in vain for islands of normalcy in Netflix drama, It’s OK for what it is, my tact-alternative to Why must we watch this? Takeaway came of two faces amidst the ensemble: Timothy Hutton and Henry Thomas, latter the E.T. boy. It occurred to me that these two occupy a separate category from players they now work with, Hutton and Thomas being actors of the theatres, not the stage, mind, but paying screens, audience screens, back when we had, and attended, them. Are there children born of recent years who will never see a movie at what used to be called cinemas? (2070 interviewer to Henry Thomas: “Sir … as one of the last survivors from that period, what was it like acting for movies that people once crowded together to watch in large auditoriums?”) Romance of old Hollywood revolve for me around night clubs, streetcars, trains with dining and bar space, yet I never experienced these in my lifetime. They belong to a past, but surely my elders ached at seeing them go. Better to focus on advantages we enjoy that predecessors could not. Fact I’m able to write and then instant-publish another Greenbriar column is a miracle to awe me still. Should I somehow travel to that past I profess to long for, what would I say? Probably Get me out of here! … and back to my Internet and Blu-Rays.

Martin Scorsese wrote recent about grim fate for films. You’d think after spanking he got a last time, for saying Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” he would keep shut, though I can’t help admiring the man’s pluck. Latest salvo came wrapped in Fellini appreciation, Scorsese going off topic to assail “content” as a “business term” applied to all moving images. Something new lands on the Netflix “platform” (that grim word!) and withers quick as bananas left in the sun. Traditionalists want movies to be an event, as once defined by trailers, one-sheets or banner art hung along approach from boxoffice to lobbies. A film might play a year to paying customers, as did Star Wars as projected by my friend Geoff in comparative small town that was Hickory, NC back in 1977-78, but wait, Scorsese’s The Irishman has been on Netflix since November 2019, and I don’t expect it to leave. Check online to find multiple style Irishman posters, each arresting and accessible to collectors on 27X41 for home display. Trailers were rife as run-up to the 2019 “Premiere” … admittedly a different sort of premiere, but there was excitement attending it, a months-long anticipation for those who keep eye upon digital happenings. Scorsese grieves for “fans of cinema” who “can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema.” To his mind, “value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property” (you mean that wasn’t the case before?).

“In that sense,” says Scorsese, “everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001: A Space Odyssey is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “art film” swim lane on a streaming platform.” To that “wrung dry” characterization I part company, at least so long as my Sunrise Blu-Ray spins its multiple versions of the feature, extras aplenty (outtakes, a 20-page booklet, more). “Wrung dry” was me and Sunrise-seekers during the 80’s when the 1927 silent was had only on diminished terms of a 16mm dupe that cost $275 or better. La Strada is had on Region Two Blu, and though I have not seen it, is said to look lush. 2001 can now be got in 4K, which must be like living inside the pod. If this be the swim lane cinema occupies, issue me flippers and a snorkel. Not to be flippant, however, as I understand what Scorsese misses. It is movies as movie-movies, a happening worth the wait among kindred crowds. The last thing I saw on terms approaching this was Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a fitting last stand, perhaps, for movie-movies.

Change teaches us to be self-reliant where entertainment, or enrichment, is the object. Make the most of platforms, which for me, are gold veins once pyrite is passed and goodies are dug out (sample of buried treasure: Amazon Prime briefly streamed the 1951 Death of a Salesman, which had not run anywhere else in decades). So much is free (again I laud You Tube), while each week brings half-off or better sales of Blu and standard discs. To You Tube option comes wealth of film exploration from fans who devise videos to celebrate what they enjoy best, run-time from five minutes to feature-length depending on level of commitment. These I think have taken the place of long-form writing we previously got from blogs. Dazzling is the best of fan handiwork done with passion tough to convey in cold print, movie musing having entered a new and exciting epoch. Compare with extras we get on discs, but with energy cranked up, often irreverent, sometimes outlandish (as in good outlandish). No corporate toadying here, nor anxiety at running afoul of a legal department. Clips are accessed via “Fair Use,” high time a fan universe took custody of that. These creators, virtually all 70’s-or-(well)after-born, demonstrate how a younger generation view old films, theirs a freshest wind to blow through our area of interest since I don’t know when, a wide-as-horizons swim lane where back-flip dives and cannonballs are norm. Not before have I been better informed and got more fun in the bargain.

I admit this current crop stays to large part with films made in a last fifty years, but think what fifty years is to someone who is not yet forty … or thirty. They have tech skill to generate video as pro as what big production houses come up with, so how can I reasonably expect them to dote on Ken Maynard or Blanche Sweet? These videos speak language refreshing to hear, not scholar boilerplate I for one am fatigued by. So what if he/she regards film history as having begun with the American “Renaissance,” or “New Wave” as it is understood to have emerged in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Videos do go back earlier to favor genres or certain directors. There is much on horror, and Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang, varied others who still claim a corner of fan focus. Vertigo and M are deep wells one can dive into. James Bond gets tremendous coverage, and there must be a hundred videos on The Godfather(s), Goodfellas, Casino … we sift among them to locate the best, and believe me, the best are things wonderful. Explore a while and be happily addicted. Joy for me is perspective not had before, like “killer suits” men wore in Hitchcock films (yes!, come to think of it), how Young Frankenstein is what everyone thinks of with regard the blind hermit, not Bride of Frankenstein, where the character first appeared. Ouch to that, but the narrator is probably right. Found one analyst, born years after The French Connection came out, railing against fellow students in a film class who call it a “boring old movie.” Love it when young people take up cudgels on behalf of our boring old movies. Favorite uploaders are numerous, fresh ones added each time I check in, herewith but a few: Essential Films, JoBlo Movie Clips, CinemaTyler, Flick Fanatics, The Whole Equation, Jack’s Movie Reviews, Renegade Cut, The Critical Drinker, Haunted Blowfish, Matt Draper, Screen Junkies, Matthew Danczak, Nerd Soup, History Buffs, Biographics, Dark Corner Reviews, Eyebrow Cinema … obviously, I could go on. These creators are the future of film study. Provided they stay busy, I’ll not despair for lively discourse along lines of our passion.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Wit and Wisdom Where I Least Expect Them


Indo-China Life is Enervating for Linguist Clark Gable Until He Meets Patricia Dane

Smart Humor Quickens a Classic Era

Settled down with Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942) to enjoy again dialogue spoke by Clark Gable. This is one of his great knowing sage parts. Who saw a looming world war but Gable? Him and Bogart (in Across The Pacific) for sure. Others up to December 7 were blind, dumb, and deaf. “Clark Gable” was another of know-the-score personas a writer wrote best for. Somewhere I’ll Find You taps a rich vein for talk. To be so clever as people in movies was an impossible dream. Who knew how many wits supported a Gable or Bogart? Like Billy Wilder said through vehicle of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, everyone thinks actors make it all up as they go along. Lots still do. I no longer care if Somewhere I’ll Find You is a “good” picture. I just like listening to it.

Does Lana Burn When Clark Calls Her Narcissus?

Gable is a pre-war correspondent who knows shooting is imminent. He flirtates with offscreen Lana Turner (her in the shower), guessing a face and figure from articles of clothing, cosmetics, a hairbrush. He proposes she’s blonde and attractive, to which Lana accedes, Gable calling her “Narcissus” for what seems to him excess vanity. I touched brakes on that one … who was hep to Narcissus in 1942? “Gable” knows his Greek mythology, but that’s only a start. Later, at an Indo-China bar, Patricia Dane tries picking CG up on a pretense she’s from Park Avenue. “Chances are it was Brooklyn first,” he retorts. They spar, Patricia asking how he pegged her. “I’m a linguist,” says Gable. So what was hand count for ones who knew in 1942 what a linguist was? (for the record: “someone who studies language … including grammar, vocabulary, and how words evolve over time”). I suspect folks were better educated then than we are now. Gable for a finish dictates outcome of a battle he has helped win, looking over the typist’s shoulder and saying, “That’s perfidy with an “e,” not a “u,” this an offhand gag … did viewers laugh? Go further … were they familiar with the word “perfidy” (faithless or disloyal … treacherous)? I’m wondering if Clark Gable had to look it up, or have someone explain it to him. But then imagine currency the word would have after December 7. Anyone who did not know perfidy had considerable cause to learn it. (no need to delve into spelling as a lost art --- just open any Internet page, or most current books)

That's Perfidy With an "E," Not a "U"

Point of my palaver is how movies, even ordinary movies like Somewhere I’ll Find You, were smartened up by writers whose function it was to salt workmanlike dialogue. Credits were crowded, in Somewhere instance one for story (Charles Hoffman), another for adaptation (Walter Reisch), still another for the “screenplay” (Marguerite Roberts). Add to these five uncredited scribes, including Gene Fowler, Dalton Trumbo, plus the director Wesley Ruggles. Eight in all, and who knows what others might have contributed? Somewhere I’ll Find You is awash in fast-clip speech anyone could wish to apply in everyday life, but who could, or did? Here was truest magic of movies, even ones otherwise commonplace, and clearest barometer of what writers (however many) routinely brought to a studio assignment. Did movies, radio, astute daily columns, inspire us to improve verbal skill? To be articulate was to be ahead in all games, education a must to stay even with entertainers. Even cartoons expected much of their audience. I derive something new from a Bugs or Daffy each time I watch. Quiz programs listened to at home really quizzed. I’d like to think people were rewarded for heightened vocabulary, or is that wishful projection upon old days? To go see Somewhere I’ll Find You and recognize Narcissus, linguist, and perfidy had to make folks feel good about themselves, and similarly so toward the film. No one was dumb-downed to. Oh, and wait … when Patricia Dane asks Gable “why the chill?” (he isn’t coming on to her, as she, and we, expect “Clark Gable” to do), guess what he says … “must be the climate … enervating.”  Enervating! (causing one to feel drained of energy or vitality). Thank you, Classic Era, for the flattery.

Was public education simply better then, or need I ask? Took a flyer toward finding out with McGuffey’s Reader, a series of “Eclectic” texts introduced in 1836 and taught in schools for over a century after. Want to be humbled in a hurry? Explore what McGuffey expected of ten-year-olds during its primacy. I lately sifted a set, came away abashed. Does Amazon sell dunce caps? If so, place my order. McGuffey was used widely, still is by home schoolers, the books all time best-selling behind the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary. A lot of 1942’s public for Somewhere I’ll Find You were taught by McGuffey’s. Students defined themselves by which level they reached, six Readers seeing them through high school, or in some cases, completed well prior to that. “Literacy, Virtue, and Values” came courtesy stories, poems, essays, and speeches to promote “courage, honor, diligence, stewardship, independence, frugality, perseverance, and kindness.” So where do we hear such words today other than as punchlines for a joke? Youngsters then were reading Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Washington Irving, Daniel Webster, myriad others. A teacher said long ago that fundamental basis for a proper education came down to three sources: Mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare, knowledge of Latin the cherry on top. I don’t pretend to anything like this level of learning. Who of us in 2021 could?

Not to say people were smarter in 1942, and certainly won’t argue we are smarter now. But I submit they had greater vocabulary, read more ... otherwise they might be insulted by “Clark Gable” bandying such words as Narcissus, linguist, enervating, and perfidy. MGM certainly was not for making their audience feel stupid. Writers may hue to formula, balk at same old stories they were obliged to tell and re-tell, but mischief could be made with dialogue incidental to all that, so long as words raised a laugh, or better, an ongoing air of amused contentment. This was where wits in the workshop applied their gifts. We know too few by name, these who came late to a script for purpose of whipping cream. They were quipsters by commissary reckoning, the sort never to lose verbal advantage, “consultants” to extent of lifting weight off melodrama or making romance less mushy. Gloom lift did for dialogue what Buster Keaton achieved with visual gags he dreamed up for every sort of MGM endeavor. These people were MVP’s on any studio team. How did they begin? As class clowns? Maybe with vaudeville, or radio … many had done squibs for college gazettes, assorted student japery. I knew a man, long departed, whose backstory ran gamut from early achievement to ultimate ruin. He had gone to UNC-Chapel Hill, became a literary lion via short stories everyone said was equal to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, him reliable for piercing riposte to any remark. Trouble was, he also drank, putting paid to promise. Died in a housefire, cigarette in bed, him in cups. If gift of writing has a leveler, it is alcohol.

Remember Laird Doyle of Cain and Mabel fame? He came of campus cleverness, and like talented others could smarten up a script. His kind tended to work anonymous, like so many on studio payroll. Some never got a screen credit, such a thing meaningless in any event. Working wit Donald Ogden Stewart played the system by volunteering service where work was mostly done, him to wave a wand over that which a half-dozen others had labored over. For being last to the party, he was a cinch for on-screen acknowledgement. Such was maneuvering among industry wags. Talkies put talent like Stewart’s in a driving seat. Nat Perrin also was a gag man, “script doctor” if you will, pollinating flowers yet to bloom. Perrin got $300 a week to enhance Sidewalks of New York, a Buster Keaton for MGM, his a verbal baggage Keaton did not need, though bosses were convinced otherwise, words very much coin of the realm with speech still a novelty. Visual comedy was a past decade’s fashion. Few apart from Keaton would argue that. His vehicles were where cleverness with chat sunk like stone, grafted upon Keaton to render him less old hat. What was sense of adding comic relief to what was already a comedy? The policy made sense at the time, however, Metro money well spent to put Perrin, and undoubted others, on deck, plus loud or louder clown support to keep Keaton relevant. To this commission came Durante, Polly Moran, Ed Brophy, Cliff Edwards … Keaton features more a roast for the putative star than assist to his style of humor.

Not to knock these support players, or writing talent behind them. Nothing seemed so fresh and sassy as humor cut loose where it could thrive best, the early 30’s a banquet for ones who could bandy words best. Nat Perrin was such a prodigy (his first industry job at age 25), being quick to observe how rapid-fired jokes might cancel each other out, toppers toppling ones before. Perrin worked on 
Duck Soup, was satisfied with what Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and himself put on paper. Trouble was others trying to out-do the writing team for funny. “Leo McCarey was the director of the picture … But one of the problems that I found with McCarey was that … If you’ve been around a comedy script for a long time, by the time you’re filming --- I don’t care what’s in there --- it starts seeming very stale. And if you have someone on the set trying to be creative --- and he is, to a degree --- and his is the newest and freshest idea to come along, by comparison to what you’ve already got in the script, then you might say, Yeah, let’s do that instead. And it’s altogether possible what you’ve suggested may be amusing, but it isn’t one-tenth as good as what’s in the script. But when you hear it for the first time, you’re giggling. You’re not giggling at the stuff you’ve already heard for three months … So they were improvising, McCarey and Groucho, and they went so far overboard …” (This from a fine interview Lee Server conducted with Perrin for Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, published in 1987). Does an original script for Duck Soup survive, one to fairly represent what Kalmar, Ruby, Sheekman, and Perrin put down in words, then saw changed by McCarey, Groucho, whoever else? I have read of other instances where humor got thrown out after weeks honing it, over which time funny stopped seeming funny, the last jokes heard being ones that got used. If nothing else, I would like to read Duck Soup and stack it up against the finished movie we have known for 88 years.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Belatedly Back On The Road


The End Of The Road Is Hong Kong

Ten years was a long time off the Road for Bing and Bob, this their first trip together since 1952's Bali. It would also be the last of Roads they'd take, despite gratifying $4.2 million in worldwide rentals. The spilt was three ways between Crosby, Hope, and writer/producer/directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, United Artists in for its distribution fee off the top. Panama/Frank were trustworthy comedy constructionists, Hope having lately clicked in The Facts Of Life for them. The scribes told Variety readership, in amusing terms, how tough it was to organize a project for one-man corporations that were Hope and Crosby. Mood of their piece is light, but you get a feeling Panama/Frank found it barely worthwhile getting into bed with two such elephants of the biz. Making a film about making this film would have been more compelling, said the writing/directing team. "Writing" may be debatable, Panama/Frank claiming few of their words survived avalanche of ad-libbing by Hope/Crosby.

That part I question from reading of how the duo kept respective gagman teams from their radio shows on alert to supply jokes for previous Roads, meaning "ad-libs" were as much ghosted as what from scripts was cast aside. But here's the rub: neither Hope nor Crosby had radio programs by 1962, and while Bob kept his TV and personal app crew on retainer, Bing would have needed to dig up gagsters for this occasion of protecting his interests on The Road To Hong Kong. Did Crosby/Hope so blithely toss aside a well-crafted Panama/Frank screenplay in favor of off-cuff stuff? Doesn't seem likely, especially as the two were bound to be rusty as a team after a decade apart (though there was, and continued to be, frequent TV spotting for them). The Road To Hong Kong stretched to four months shooting at Shepperton, much of Hope/Crosby families travelling to join an expensive party. The boys had at least shaped up for the shoot, Crosby's waistline down to a svelte 32" if Variety's Army Archerd was to be believed.

Hope and Norman Panama wanted to call it "The Road To The Moon" as indicator of sci-fi elements in the pic, but Crosby and Melvin Frank preferred Hong Kong. Did UA marketers cast a deciding vote? Casting favored a young replacement for Dorothy Lamour, in mid-forties now and past sarong-age. She balked at the demotion and took bigger money and a featured number as salve. Joan Collins would be femme foil and object of Crosby/Hope rivalry. The Road To Hong Kong was salted with cameos in case this wasn't enough: Peter Sellers as a Hindu medico, David Niven a glimpse, Jerry Colonna for sentiment, plus Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as a moonscape capper. Those last were got as result of Crosby "picking up the phone" to request they fly over. He and Hope promised to return the favor in a next Rat Packer. Such was show biz then. Filming was captured by David Wolper's crew for an NBC special that would, "for the first time," follow a major motion picture from conception to completion, a DuPont "Show Of The Week" set for 5/6/62 broadcast.

The Road To Hong Kong
got rhapsodic reviews in hosting UK, the venture having pumped plenty into a needy economy. For US release, there was innovation of "Premiere Showcase" bookings, which was United Artists skipping Broadway preem in favor of day-and-date open at thirteen houses in greater area of Gotham. Such had not been tried before, and not everyone supported it. First day receipts were $21,123, which was called good, but what figures did they have to compare this with, the plan untested till then? Admission prices were up and so was cost of advertising thanks to Premiere Showcase, which needed widespread word to grab customers unaccustomed to the fresh format. Saturation runs had been common in Los Angeles, where The Road To Hong Kong did a "smash" first day in 24 situations, more than half the cume coming from eight drive-ins that were running the feature. Here was proof again that biggest cash was often collected outdoors in LA, especially in balmy months like June when The Road To Hong Kong came to town.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Let The Fun Never Stop

 Part Two Aboard Comedy's Caravan

I found a “Looser Than Loose” DVD compilation of team comedies. In it was ten minutes of Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton from We’re In The Navy Now (1926), among phalanx of service spoofs the pair did for Paramount. This is mostly them swabbing a deck, mops swung willy-nilly. I gather this is all the feature we have left, unless someone puts me right. Of late there is controversy over how good or bad Harry Langdon shorts were for Hal Roach. I watched Skirt Shy (1929) on a recent DVD and so disqualify myself from voting under heading of if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. I like Langdon, have boosted him. Ever notice how Harry fans assume a defensive posture sooner or later? I will not say Skirt Shy is bad, as today’s should be a relaxing column, not me looking for trouble. I may be safer saying that Clark and McCullough in 1934’s In A Pig’s Eye seem sort of bad, or has there not been enough Clark and McCullough in my life? They run a tailor shop and later bring a squealing pig to a formal dinner. I don’t remember why. This was an RKO talking short that owners likely meant to burn, but somehow overlooked. From a same category, a pair of “toy projector” fragments (free with purchase of the machine) of Slim Summerville in Easy Work (1924), otherwise lost, but this will do. Only five minutes, through which I fell asleep two distinct times, roused to consciousness by disquieting sight of Summerville, too slim for comfort. I promptly ate several caramels to avoid such a thing happening to me.

Worn out yet? There is still Two Lame Ducks (1936), an Educational two-reeler surviving as one, Billy Gilbert and Vince Barnett would-be duck shooters. Mr. W’s Little Game (1934) has Alexander Woollcott abusing diners with a nonsensical word game. I felt he was talking down to me the whole time, which from what I understand, Woollcott did to those who came across him in the twenties or thirties. Not an attractive screen presence, if this is evidence. Woollcott regarded himself head man at the Algonquin Round Table. I’ve had mixed feelings about this group (was it actually a “vicious circle”?), and am set upon reading books about them in hope of better understanding. To bungle speeches like Benchley comes Donald Ogden Stewart --- they were friends (up to a point), but Stewart lacked an Everyman quality Benchley had, being too baldly Ivy League to warm us, and so made do writing screenplays. Both Traffic Regulations and Humorous Flights date from 1929, a year when anyone who could stand straight and talk amusing was given a chance. These Stewart shorts are extras on a Benchley DVD set from Kino, as is the Woollcott, three Smart Set members for the price of a single disc.

More common is The Cook (1918), which is R. Arbuckle with Buster Keaton, a short thought gone for years, one, in fact two, prints turning up in Europe, an archival event. I’d be hackney to call their moves “balletic.” They are, surely, as who of present-day gets round like this? Roscoe has a big knife he uses to slice meat, tosses it behind him and rests assured it will land blade-in and precise upon corner of his butcher stand, a maneuver deft beyond modern capacity to duplicate. Took years at vaudeville, stock, and silent movies to master this and all of rest these masters did. What was average time getting your diploma for physical comedy? Longer than for neurosurgery, I bet. My high school drama class did an 8mm short where I jumped off the top of a bus just like Buster might have done, results distinctly not the same. Given a cold enough day, I still feel the effect. The Cook ends up with Bad Fuzzy St. John chasing the girl (but which girl?) over rollercoaster trestles, way high up. How is it silent comedies so often begin in one spot or circumstance, and two reels later finish someplace far off and unconnected? Let’s call them all avant-garde and await mainstream embrace to surely come.

Might Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian qualify as an abstract, expressionist artist, a prodigy even? He started in shorts at age two (born 1923), retired by 1929 at six. There were twenty-eight shorts wherein he (1) runs away from home “to be a hobo,” (2) escapes from behind German lines, or in Helter Skelter, obliged to sell his dog (“Mutt”) for the sake of a destitute mother. Big Boy is put through paces, as is Mutt, latter wrecking a party after he gets in the fireplace and is coated with coal dust. Hilarity ensues, really it does. I’ve not before seen coal dust so capably employed. Ben Model rescued Helter Skelter as part of his “Accidently Preserved” series, the second reel only due to an “unprojectionable” first that ultimately turned into a “nitrate brick.” How does one dispose of such toxic waste? Nitrate isn’t something you leave for the trash collector along with empty cereal boxes. For the record, Big Boy was pals with Lon Chaney Sr. and lived until 2006. I confused him initially with “Sunny Jim” McKee, a contemporary who did forty some shorts, then died of blood poisoning at eight. Child stars were a fragile lot, as I learned years ago when apprised of fate that awaited Our Gangers.

Not to dwell again on treasured Leon Errol except to note his outward success going into most shorts, a business owner with assistants and a secretary, an elegant home plus servants, his sole anchor a forever suspicious wife. Every Errol comedy builds to a frenzy of deception and misunderstandings. Most clowns worked that formula once dialogue took a lead. Mis-chose words were what generally got Edgar Kennedy in trouble, same for Charlie Chase once he landed at Columbia. Yes, I am easier to please, because these appeal to me like they never did before. Rote can comfort, knowing what you look at is but slight vary of what you saw before, and will likely see next. Keep your spontaneity and surprise, I’ll take Charlie at Columbia and be happy. Policy statement to hereafter apply, that is spelling him “Charlie” rather than “Charley,” simply because I prefer typing out Charlie to Charley. There is a reason why men like Errol and Chase worked, and were wanted, right up to days they died. They knew all men’s plight, reminded us of it in brief, exiting before just enough became too much. Could seventeen-eighteen minutes be more profitably spent? I read how Charlie Chase lamented to friends his standing below other comics, this near the end of a lifetime making merry, onscreen and off. And yet his name would come up, long after Charlie was gone (d. 1940), critics citing him exemplar of a time comedy was best practiced. Maybe it shouldn’t matter if Chase, sundry others, are “rediscovered.” He has been there, always, if over 100 years can be considered always, which in context of comedy, will do nicely, as what humor from earlier on survives so well? And if Chase hasn’t sustained, tell me how oceans of his work continue to lick upon shore that is You Tube. There is more of him there than one can say grace over … and so many uploaders, Charlie Chase rediscovered a more than done deal.

There are ways to watch comedy. Maybe a best was in compilations, Robert Youngson the ideal guide to what was good. Many saw what he did, and little else, Youngson scrapbooks satisfying novelty interest a general audience had. The few that explored beyond him did their own excavations in years to come. Surely those who boxed mirth for DVD came to their passion via Youngson. Closest to his styling has been Slaphappy, thirty half-hours plus a feature, silent footage with music and narration. These were produced between 2001 and 2003, played PBS and other TV outlets. A relevant Slaphappy episode would make a good lead-in to whatever group of shorts you assemble, saving time and tedium of a spoken intro. So finally the question: How to introduce a show of vintage comedy? Cardinal rule: Never promise the moon, let alone that your audience will fall from chairs laughing. That’s like guaranteeing they won’t. I have over years built up enough qualifiers to make folks almost wonder why we’re there, fear of overselling a grip upon me from early on. I prefer hearing Wow, that was better than I expected to Gee, that wasn’t so good as you said it would be. Far as I’ll go … Here is a short comedy (emphasis on short) you might find interesting. And don’t smile when you say it. Let ‘em find laughs for themselves.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Swallowed By a Sea of Slapstick


The Hot Fudge Cake That Is Short Comedy --- Part One

“Binging” is not a welcome word to me, whether food or movies, but I suppose it’s apt where you look at four dozen short comedies in a two-week space. Call it research, object to determine how many two-reelers it takes to become sick of two-reelers. Again is reminder of Glenn’s Tastee-Freez and hot fudge cake fabulous beyond reckoning, a plateful eaten every day for … yes, I think two weeks … shunned since 1978 and for all time. Could too much of similarly good things happen also with short comedy? Moderation in all aspect of life, so say the mature. What to these is difference between slapstick and hot fudge cake? Both are better had by reasoned portion. Time I back from the table then, but not before recounting an odyssey, if random, through thickets of sight humor from creators prominent in their epoch, if recalled less, or altogether forgot, today.

Early-bred fans, after fifty, sixty, years, still demand we “discover” Harry Langdon, Charlie Chase, neglected others. Fact is we've clung to these from first glimpse courtesy Robert Youngson, or glow from an 8mm projector. Langdon and Chase are still world-famed beside some of faces I saw of late. How’s for sampling of Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian, Billy Franey, Clyde Cook? Don’t imagine old comedy is buried or lost. Yes, I know much of it is dust, but who of us will live long enough to look at even part of what is so far on DVD, or spinning off You Tube, numbers increased by the week to make keeping up a full-time occupation. I’m no authority, am obtuse enough in fact to be fooled into thinking Billy West really is Charlie Chaplin, so deft is his impression at times. Happy status of slapstick is its being the most democratic of screen categories. We don’t have to “understand” it to have a good time watching (though a Langdon takes adjusting, let alone Musty Suffer). As with so much in life, I’d say die is best cast when young, most fans I know being lifelong ones. Many have been encounters with those who tripped over Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy at age eight, or five, pick your date. There is no love like that engendered for banana skins, seltzer bottles, bottomless rain gutters, mustard plasters … wait, stop on that last. What were mustard plasters and why did people use them? For chest congestion, I’m told. Mustard powder and flour that turns to a thick paste when combined with water, which you then put on fabric and apply to your chest. It sticks there and makes for painful removal, especially where comics engage in tit-for-tat. Like stuck-on flypaper they say, and by the way, what the heck’s flypaper, asks anyone born since 1920, save those raised on antique comedy. Apparently mustard plasters are still used. Search me by who. My avoidance of them goes back to seeing Blotto a first time in 1969. It is safe to say that slapstick followers will never resort to mustard plaster, however congested their chests become.

I watch these shorts alone and laugh. Really laugh, having come to realization that I am easier to please now than in youth. Must we forever challenge movies to amuse us? Someone promises their selection is funny, a cue to bow up and show them that no it’s not. People can be cruel this way. I’d rather look at comedy by myself and avoid doubters who think I’ll yuck-yuck at anything, laughter harder won from smart folks after all. Humor being therapeutic is obvious enough. A latest Andy Hardy promises to “Pack Up Your Troubles!” when it’s “Time Out For Laughs!” There was a war then, and everyone had troubles. They needed humor more than ever, which is why Abbott-Costello hit big, and even lesser Laurel-Hardy made the grade. There will always be need for comedy, sometimes a desperate one. The Harold Lloyd estate lately uploaded a clutch of his shorts and features to You Tube for free viewing, all HD. There are oodles here, all terrific, more added each week (latest: Dr. Jack, A Sailor Made Man, Grandma’s Boy). I don’t see how anyone could watch Lloyd and not be boosted. He always surprises me for being funnier than I remember from the last time. Granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, owner/curator of the lot, has found the key to push Harold back up a pyramid from which he surveyed all of the twenties. Are five-and-eight-year-olds coming upon these at You Tube who will someday keep Lloyd and other comedy torches lit? YT has become the library at Alexandria for vintage humor, a well that is bottomless because it is replenished every day.

I watch Lloyd and am astonished how he strung such pearls a hundred years ago. And so many. I’ll not look up the total number for wanting the supply to be infinite, as if Harold and Snub and Bebe were still back there making these things and uploading them from 1919 to You Tube 2021. I could believe it for image quality alone. Lloyd seems very postmodern, if that senseless term meant ultra-motivated, aggressive, ruthless where necessary. Found out from Annette Lloyd’s book that he and crew did a short each week, Sunday/holidays just part of ongoing blur. Graduation to two-reels made the job marginally easier, then Harold got fingers blown off by what was supposed to be a prop bomb. Don’t let anyone tell you these comics didn’t earn every dime of what they got. I like reading just how rich Lloyd was. Here’s what I sort of wonder, remarkable that it matters considering all of years passed: How did Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels lose each other? They seem to me a couple that should have stayed together, or am I too romantic? Word is she wanted a feature career, and he wasn’t ready to commit. Not that Harold would have been a model mate, maybe not Bebe either. Impression from books is that they never fully got over each other, passing only eight days apart during March 1971. Lost love lends shading to what seems knockabout on a surface, part-reason why those conversant on Lloyd’s life enjoy him best.

Comedy excavation is hopscotch played with clowns known by many ... precious few ... or nobody. I sampled some from each category. Lloyd Hamilton was lumpen and prissy, odd but not freaky. Guess if I looked for a Lloyd Hamilton in latter-day midst, there would emerge a few. In fact, there was one I saw yesterday, him grown up in my neighborhood, now walking to-from town slower than a snail, and wouldn’t speak if you told him he was on fire. Could this be a “Lloyd Hamilton”? You wouldn’t figure Hamilton for funny considering hardship he had, but the man was plenty funny. I looked at Careful Please and Breezing Along, both deserving not to be so obscure as they are. LH starts off repossessing furniture in one, winds up with three other guys suspended in a car hung five stories up on a wire. I cannot recall how one led to the other, my viewing days crowded after all. Suffice to say there were laughs, and Hamilton was inventive. He’s another where prints or negatives are mostly gone. Then there was Billy Franey hauling a fire hydrant about town to shake down parking cars (The Water Plug, 1920), a notion not gone stale for lasting but twelve minutes. Franey to me looks like Billy Bevan, who could as easily be Chester Conklin, who might in a next short become Snub Pollard. To think they could all go together into a restaurant, sit down for a meal, and be unrecognized, so long as not mustachioed. Did sameness make them less funny? Depends on gags they were given. My impression is standards were high based on what I've seen.

Robert Benchley is a discovery I have made, not really, because he was familiar all along, but now, and sudden, he is my humorist hero. Is it arrival to stage-of-life where I finally get him? How-ever … he is wonderful and I’m thankful to be in proper receipt. How many more are out there that I may look forward to finding for a first appreciative time? I read Wes Gehring’s splendid bio and bibliography, which has columns Benchley wrote, plus letters to family, various asides. Good as are comic shorts he made (many for MGM from the mid-thirties on, and some for Paramount), it is Benchley’s writing that serves him best, but what a screen personality he became. A boon to features (China Seas, Foreign Correspondent, many more), the buck stopped with Benchley so far as words his screen persona spoke, such leeway a given since no one understood “Benchley” like Benchley. They wanted him as much for his singular outlook developed over years of humor pieces, column presence as in both his own and being quoted often by friends and writer colleagues, plus free-wheeling Broadway reviews he did. Benchley's family would confirm that he was, in "Everyman" observations, much the same person they knew at home. His first single reel for Metro, How To Sleep, won an Academy Award for Best Short of 1935. It plays truthful today as what audiences got then. Son Nathaniel Benchley wrote a biography, also compiled a "Best Of " his father’s writings.

Larry Semon and Stan Laurel are chased by separate grizzlies in 1918’s Bears and Bad Men. They are incidentally members of a feuding hillbilly family. There is no indication of why they feud. People assume all of us in the South feud, and so leave well enough alone. Thing I like is real bears being used, except when one climbs up a chimney or jumps off a roof. Semon was built to take punishment. That and a nervous breakdown plus tuberculosis finished him in 1928. Cloudy prints are for most part his legacy, us caring less for Larry than his giving support to Laurel, or later, Hardy. Several of these shorts turn up in a recent Blu-Ray set of L or H comedy made prior to teaming. Like Clyde Cook? I watched him not three nights ago, but could not tell you what he looks like. Cook is The Misfit (1924) in a way Chaplin was The Tramp, as in always so for purpose of clowning. Cook begins as beleaguered hubby with shrew wife who tells him to “paint the bathroom floor,” which he does, muffs the job, then goes and joins the Marines, good a way as any to occupy a second half of one reel. Edgar Kennedy in Baby Daze (1939) thinks wife Vivien Oakland has given birth when she is actually out for groceries. Someone else’s infant prolongs the misunderstanding. This one was sillier than I could forbear. For a while anyway, the Kennedys will be on probation in this house.

Part Two of Comedy's Caravan is HERE.
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