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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.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John, you've opened my eyes to an obvious fact of the Leon Errol two-reelers: he's always a successful or at least stable businessman. He's never a vagrant, or bum, or misfit, or guy in the street struggling to get by, as practically every other screen comedian played at one time or another. The gag writers at RKO never pitched ideas like "Leon's a bad waiter in a classy restaurant," or "Leon's a tramp mistaken for royalty," or "Leon's out of a job and has to raise some money for his battle-axe landlady." Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, the Stooges, even Harry Langdon and Charley Chase might have tackled such material, and consequently any Columbia comedian in later years would have their turn playing misfits (Shemp Howard, Vernon & Quillan, El Brendel, etc.).

The very fact that Errol played intelligent, reasonable characters gave him a quality seen in sitcom leads of the 1950s. Quoting a 1958 trade review: "The brightest, funniest comedy package to hit TV in a long time is a 20-year-old series of shorts from RKO, most of them starring the late great funnyman Leon Errol... The amazing value of these shorts is their modern look and sound, which belies their age and certainly gives them worth above the average old-moviehouse package. Errol is riotous as the bumbling newlywed who cannot quite cope with in-laws, boss, or unattached women. His personality is strong enough to make him posthumously a TV star."

Someone at Columbia (I'm guessing Maurice Grad, head of short-subject sales) must have taken notice, because in April 1959 Columbia brought one of its own Leon Errol shorts back to theaters -- PERFECTLY MISMATED, then 25 years old!

3:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer talks about a Harry Langdon exhibitor's short he came across at You Tube:

Well, I searched YouTube for “Skirt Shy,” and could not find it. I confess that my skill at negotiating the web is somewhat rudimentary. It may be there under one of the few rocks I did not trip over. I did find, however, a little snippet that is purportedly Harry Langdon’s first sound short. Here is the link:;_ylt=A2KIbZzvdUpg.LAA9BlXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzIEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=harry+langdon&fr=mcafee#id=68&vid=7e3025ee4cf0a438447ce87fa7946493&action=view

It could very well be just that, as it looks as though it was intended to introduce Langdon to exhibitors as the latest of the Hal Roach stars. The vocal mannerisms he affects are very like those in “The Head Man,” such as the refrain of “Oh boy, uh oh, uh oh” that ornaments movements and gags and various intrusions that have nothing to do with anything other than a character that is quite unique. Thelma Todd is the object of his ministrations and she is delightful, the perfect complement, as a woman of obvious earthly delights, to a man who is, obviously, not entirely one with this world. I am not familiar enough with Andy Kaufman to confirm any parallels, but I do have to wonder whether Dustin Hoffman was channeling more than a little Langdon in “Rain Man.”

4:23 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That Langdon short was pretty funny -- to me. It's pretty easy to see Harry's an acquired taste, and I don't know anybody who would acquire it. He just seems ahead of his time, like Shaw & Lee in their 1926 short "Beau Brummels".

If you think "Mr. W's Little Game" is terrible (I do, anyway), you should see Hal Roach's "You Bring the Ducks", starring Irvin S. Cobb. Bad script, awful timing, and -- I hate to be rude -- Cobb's utterly unphotogenic looks and unpleasant voice. I couldn't make it past the first reel.

It's heresy, but I prefer the few Charlie Chase Columbia shorts to his Roach stuff, which has never made me laugh.

5:01 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Something to remember about shorts: Even more than features, they were designed to earn your nickel and afterwards be discarded, like a stick of gum. A sloppy plot or the lack of an ending didn't matter so long as there were enough laughs, since they usually segued directly to something completely different. You were into another short or even the main attraction before you could reflect that Stan and Ollie were still in serious trouble at fadeout.

Even when popular shorts were reissued, they remained but one act among fresher items. Some theaters famously kept Disney's "Three Little Pigs" for several weeks, but certainly the rest of the program kept turning over as usual. More often I think they just counted on short memories. As time when on recycled gags, stock footage and even whole sequences became common, with Republic serials becoming especially diligent recyclers.

In later years Moe Howard would stress that the Stooges were never meant to be served up as a daily diet; I would add that shorts were never meant to be served as entrees rather than appetizers within a larger menu. Yes, there are plenty of short subjects funny and well-crafted enough to stand up outside of a mixed program, but they didn't have to and many didn't try. I suspect that some shorts were designed to be lame, encouraging snack bar visits and discouraging those who otherwise might have stayed through the feature twice or more. For that matter, there are probably B features whose main purpose was to clear the house.

The game changer -- for cartoons, Rascals, and the Three Stooges, anyway -- was kids watching television. Kids like repetition, so a finite set of reels with an even more finite repertoire of gags became an advantage. In time came Monday-Friday strip programming, and 65 episodes became the magic number. Every episode ran four times a year.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Or, in Saturday-morning network programming, the magic number was 17 episodes: every episode ran three times a year, like George of the Jungle.

There was a UHF station in Boston (part of the Kaiser chain) that adopted an all-color policy for its weekday kids' block. Away went Our Gang, away went most of the Fleischer cartoons -- leaving only the Color Classics in pink prints -- and away went fully half the run of both Adventures of Superman and Gilligan's Island. Only the color episodes were repeated ad infinitum, while the black-and-white episodes stayed in the film room.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Scott - A shame the B/W SUPERMAN episodes were packed up, as they are clearly the better half of the series.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Thanks so much for introducing me to Malcolm "Big Boy" Sebastian. I've been movie crazy since childhood yet had never even heard of him or his films. Checked out what's available on YouTube and found it fascinating. Especially that second reel of "Helter Skelter". The amount of frantic action, sublimely executed by Big Boy (Jackie Coogan-like in all the right ways),his dog and the uppity matron whose home and hearth they invade is pretty staggering. And definitely hilarious. Director of this is Charles Lamont whom I've long admired. Working mainly at Universal,he helmed some of the best Abbott & Costellos, along with personal favorites like "Flame of Araby" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". The Big Boy connection adds yet another feather to his cap.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

My assumption about Woollcott is that he tried his damnedest to be unpleasant with everyone except Harpo. He's especially bizarre in Hecht and MacArthur's The Scoundrel, playing the improbably-named-for-anyone-but-Woollcott "Vanderveer Veyden." The whole picture is weird, as the boys seem to be ripping off O'Neill in a vain attempt to be (I guess) simultaneously surrealist, expressionist, and profound, but ending up just giving us a series of unpleasant people. (Lee Garmes's cinematography is superb, though.)

It took me a while to warm to Errol, but once I did, I was ride or die for him. Anyone who couldn't love either Good Morning, Eve! or Service with a Smile needs to have their head (and eyeballs) examined. God help me, I even love him in the Mexican Spitfire series, even if they all have the same plot over and over. ("Remember that time you disguised yourself as Lord Epping?") Seeing him with Fields in Never Give a Sucker ... is a treat, but then everything in that picture is a treat.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I watched a Fatty Arbuckle film last night, my first ever - "Fatty And Mabel Adrift".
It's a hundred years old. I rather enjoyed the broad characterizations of the villains - they were like cartoon characters, only from the time before cartoons ever even existed.

9:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers a Mabel and Fatty encounter from his childhood during the 50's:

Filmfanman, “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” was just about the first silent film I ever saw. The families of my Mom and Dad lived in Gary, Indiana, and when we would drive back from Levittown, Pennsylvania to visit them in the 1950s, we would always go into Chicago to tour one of the museums. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry had an exhibit then modeled after a typical street in city in the 1920s, with the storefronts of drug stores, groceries, and barber shops lining it, and with a couple of old cars parked along the curb. There was also a Nickelodeon showing the aforementioned Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand film. Also starring—and saving the day for the beleaguered comics—was Luke the Dog, who got a chance to strut his stuff before the diorama. My sister and me watched it with gleeful joy. We even persuaded our parents to stay for a second showing. Given their care, I could laugh out loud in those days, being completely unmindful of any stresses or disappointments life might offer or any need for emotional detachment. As such, this movie provided one delightful surprise after another.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

I made the observation a couple of posts ago that the "colour precipice" hit shortly before I left the U.S. in 1979.... the early AM cartoon shows would rather show 3rd rate and faded cartoons rather than ANYTHING in B&W....years later, a person considerably younger than me made the point concrete with the comment "I've never seen anything in black and's all old and boring...."

4:18 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Fatty and Mabel Adrift" was featured in one of the Youngson films. I saw that version several times before I finally caught up with the actual short many years later. My sources for discovering silents were Youngson, occasional sightings of the already-old "Silents Please", the Main Street Cinema at Disneyland, a half-hour Charlie Chaplin series, "The Toy That Grew Up" on educational television, a later package of classic features on what became PBS, and even "Fractured Flickers". The floodgates opened with Blackhawk Films.

I got that Laurel and Hardy and Three Stooges two-reelers were made for theaters, but had only a vague notion what else was out there. For a long time, what I knew about talkie short subjects was mostly the parodies in animated cartoons: mock newsreels, Traveltalk riffs ("And as the sun slowly sinks in the west ..."), "Believe It or Not" gagfests, and the occasional Pete Smith-type narrator. And, of course, old marquees promising "Selected Shorts". I'd read some books, but it wasn't until DVDs and TCM entered my life simultaneously I really grasped the concept.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Film shorts were no part of my life until the 21st Century; it turns out that digital random access was the key to this locked box of treasures, as the time spent rewinding/fast-forwarding taped collections of such to get to the one I wished to watch ( had I actually wished to view any, that is) was a non-starter.
As my DVD/Blu-ray collection grew over the years, I found I had accumulated some shorts as "bonus features" and supplements, without intending to; but I did pick up some DVD and Blu-ray cartoon compilations along the way, as those were short films which I had experienced via TV as a child, and so there was a "nostalgia value" for me. As an aside, I've found that such re-visits of well-remembered and happy childhood television viewing usually turns out to be disappointing - while the films haven't changed, it seems that I have. Almost without exception, I have found that such material for me anyhow played better the first time through.
But as for the shorts themselves, I can recall seeing no other short films of any kind, other than cartoons that is, from my early days before the TV set - though my elder siblings say that I was there in my crib while they watched the Stooges on TV.
So it is that live-action short films , for me, are an exclusively 21st Century thing, made available for my viewing today only as a result of digital technology. My copy of "Fatty And Mabel Adrift" came to me as part of a Mack Sennett 3-disc blu-ray compilation which I was given some years ago. The recent items here at GPS about comedy shorts led me to take it down from its shelf and integrate a short or two into my evening's viewing.

8:01 AM  

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