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Monday, July 25, 2022

Comedy Is Catching

They Laughed 180 Years Ago --- Why Not Now?

Plenty can testify re comedy impact on audiences, us all having experienced it in theatres, but what of days long before screens were hung, and film unspooled? Minstrel times specifically, that which Mark Twain looked at live during the 1840’s when but a boy. He learned then about laughs and what earned them, wrote years later when occasion came to escort his mother and an elderly aunt to their first ever such show, at a time when minstrelsy itself was fading from landscapes. For young Samuel Clemens, the “Negro musical show” of early incarnation was “a glad and stunning surprise,” jokes the funnier as he was hearing them for a first time. Clemens recalled a house convulsed when “Mr. Bones” told of a sea crossing with all provisions lost, passengers subsisting on eggs. “You lived on eggs! Where did you get eggs?” asks the interlocuter. “Every day, when the storm was so bad, the captain laid to.” For years the gag worked, until finally it did not, “the population of the United States had heard it so many times that they respected it no longer and always received it in a deep and reproachful and indignant silence, along with others of its caliber which had achieved disfavor by long service.” What Sam learned about audiences, ones separated by twenty years but hearing same routines, made him realize what comedy can do for and to crowds.

Sam's minstrel encore came during the Civil War, his mother in attendance with him and Aunt Betsey, “a dear and lovely lady of her own age (60),” both “fond of excitement” and novelties. They were in St. Louis, and the Christy Minstrel troupe (“one of the most celebrated … and one of the best”) was playing to an audience of sixteen hundred. Both women were astonished by the costumes and extravagance. Inevitably, the joke about eggs came round. “Everybody in the house except my novices had heard it a hundred times, a frozen and solemn silence settled down upon the sixteen hundred, and poor “Bones” sat there in that depressing atmosphere and went through with his joke,” only this time when the captain “laid to,” there came “heart-whole cackles and convulsions of laughter (from Sam’s mother and Aunt Betsey) that so astonished and delighted that great audience that it rose in a solid body to look, and see who it might be that had not heard that joke before. The laughter of my novices went on and on until their hilarity became contagious, and the whole sixteen hundred joined in and shook the place with the thunders of their joy.” Here was how two members from a mass could turn tides and convert an ordinary evening into an event, “all the jokes as new to them as they were as old to the rest of the house.” Mark Twain might well have spoken for happenings to occur in theatres over the century and a half since: “The audience left the place sore and weary with laughter and full of gratitude to the innocent pair that had furnished to their jaded souls that rare and precious pleasure.”

Could a single person, or pair viewing, accomplish as much today? There is cause to think that moderns are more resistant to humor. Do we age out of capacity to laugh together? I attended a 1977 concert by stand-up comedian Steve Martin at Wake Forest University, him at a peak of new-minted popularity. Here was a college mob, several thousand at least, there to see Steve with his banjo cavort as on Saturday Night Live and other televised places. It couldn’t miss … except it did because gags were all too familiar to nearly everyone in the auditorium. Steve felt flooring sink beneath his feet, stepped finally toward us to plaintively inquire --- you’ve all got HBO, haven’t you? A chorus of yes and scattered applause, but Steve was stuck with what he had prepared, and so doggedly saw through material dog-eared by repeat views of a cable special that now made his live appearance superfluous. Martin’s plight was not unlike comics who in the late twenties agreed to do Vitaphone shorts, these sent to wired theatres throughout the country, a host of towns large and small where the performer could never use those gags again. If vaudeville was dying, here was rushing ahead with burial.

A routine appealing enough might loop a hundred times on our You Tube, three-to-six-minute detail of which is committed forever to memory. Such is province of home sitters alone and thus less weird for looking at a thing over and over, but I recall a time when whole audiences did same rituals, going back weekend after weekend, again in 1977, to worship Smokey and the Bandit. Others of us loitered about the College Park Cinema, so were privy to the odd repeaters. All were past laughing, transfixed instead by cars crashing and liturgy as observed by a cast now cousins to those who devotedly came to re-watch. It always needed audience of sufficient size to bestir glee. I went to a matinee of Young Frankenstein in 1974 and there were maybe fifteen people present. None to my knowledge as much as smiled. A month later I sat in at the College Park and they roared. It took a village, you see. That Chaplin weekend I attended at Durham in 2010 drew but thirty-nine of us to The Circus, but it clicked well as anything to such a small group could, and as told before, I was gratified by applause that came with the finish. What might Chaplin have done with a same house at capacity?

Back to the Civil War and its minstrel night. Was it the two women’s laughter that gave the audience license to respond as heartily? Had they wanted to laugh but did not for fear of looking and sounding like rubes? Mark Twain and his “novices” brought gust of fresh wind into what had become a staid setting. It’s like the time I saw Sabrina at a NY revival house in 1983 and the crowd responded gaily throughout. What a surprise, and what renewal for a favorite still a favorite but taken too long for granted (by me) with no snickers left in it. As movies carry on, humor often timeworn, we more and more need a mainstream’s consent to enjoy it unabashedly. Distancing of age made allowance for “quaint” and enabled a modern minstrel like Buster Keaton to come on Ed Wynn’s TV program in 1949 to reprise The Butcher Boy from dawn of man that was 1917. Old routines served later to a 60's era of irony would rot into camp, Buster again their ambassador in likes of Pajama Party, doing routines he knew were surefire, and yes, they were fresh to many of teens watching. A gag old enough could be brazenly repeated where being old was the joke in itself. I’m thinking of climbs up poles to a sign reading Wet Paint by Laurel and Hardy, first in 1928 (Habeas Corpus), again in 1945 for The Big Noise, then four short years later comes Cary Grant to do the same in I Was a Male War Bride. What did they take us for --- novices?

Robert Youngson compilations was what made it alright to linger upon spent comedy and realize there was much to admire in humor from so long ago. Children and a lot of adults attending The Golden Age of Comedy in 1957 were unknowing successors to Mrs. Clemens and Aunt Betsey. They’d not seen such wonders before. Ones old enough to recall mirth as dealt during the teens and twenties, obviously they were plentiful, could holler This stuff is stale! --- but who believed them amidst fresh-found joy? Novices filled matinee slots where old comedies played not as classic or cult, just content that despite being black-and-white, might still please youth years back of first family color TV. Late as 1963, the Orangeburg, SC Drive-In unspooled Way Out West (L&H), Go West (Marx Bros.), and Gold Raiders (Stooges), all from 30/40’s. What was old became “cornball,” funny again if it was to begin with, being things we could laugh at on multiple levels, ironic, or naïve for ones like Mrs. Clemens or Aunt Betsey who never saw Francis in the Haunted House before. Corny shows, generally three or four features at a sit, were passed-around policy among brother NC/SC exhibitors who knew stix pix fit fewer spots in a growingly sophisticated market waiting on The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but at least for a first half of the sixties, a showman could harvest kernels and flatter crowds by letting all in on the joke “cornball” comedy had become. They should have been around to host the Christy Minstrels, but hold, there came the New Christy Minstrels, founded in 1961, to assert how brief even a century can be for “jaded souls” to gather anew and find fun in most unlikely places.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Film Noir #10

Noir: The Big Operator and Black Angel

THE BIG OPERATOR (1959) --- Mickey Rooney could give great performances in repose. Let the film be rag-tag, Mick never missed. By 1959, he was shuttling between leads for B’s and support in A’s. Attitude may have held him down, as Rooney had habit of sacking agents and biting hands that fed him. Deep-resenting how he was treated since Number One time was passed, Rooney saw solace in playing hard-bark heavies where he’d push around even ones that dwarf him like Steve Cochran and Ray Danton. Conductor of twisted symphony that is The Big Operator was Albert Zugsmith, of whom it was said no one was so penurious or given so to sludge. But … if there were no Zuggy, there would likely be no Touch of Evil, or The Incredible Shrinking Man, so take medicine that is The Big Operator and like it. Any film where Steve Cochran is happy wed to Mamie Van Doren (their kid is Jay North) ranks high among my souvenirs. Cast in support can only be called inspired … where does one even begin? Mel Torme, aforesaid Danton, Leo Gordon, Jim Backus, Charles Chaplin Jr., Ray Anthony, and VAMPIRA --- caps necessary because there was but one Vampira (unless you factor in Carrol Borland or Elvira).

She is billed too as Vampira, not Maila Nurmi, and better still, plays a beatnik. Jackie Coogan is present, credited too as Dialogue Coach, and who could have brought to that job such range of experience? Coogan saw much in his life, too much to speak of for interviews perhaps, an infant of tawdriest tank stops and bad influences from parents on down. GPS addressed Jack before in terms of being cheated out of millions, lynch mob presence, and marriage to Betty Grable (what she learned from him). Most movies will assure you that unions are on the square, but Zugsmith apparently got no such directive. Rooney’s brotherhood appears to be rotten from the top down. Had Zugsmith been having union trouble? The Big Operator was distributed by MGM, done independent by Zugsmith for negative cost of $537K, scope black-and-white and on L.A. streets or the Metro backlot where needed. There came but $319K in domestic rentals, $295K foreign. Final loss was $312K. The Big Operator plus others Zugsmith did for Metro release reverted to him, all gone quick to TV. Olive has a Blu-Ray of fine quality.

BLACK ANGEL (1946) --- Universal did class mysteries during the 40’s to invite better bookings and placement at top of bills their unaccustomed place. Toward that came gifted directors like Robert Siodmak, writers to climb hill out of pulp origin, and casts to supply conviction if not glamour. Phantom Lady, then The Suspect and Scarlet Street, proved it could be done, and to a public’s liking. These had Siodmak or Fritz Lang as signatories, prior associates of Hitchcock on hand (Joan Harrison a producer), plus stories strung on crime and guilt to ensnare folks like you/me who schlep onto harm’s path. One could cast an Alan Curtis, Dan Duryea, or at further extreme Charles Laughton or Edward G. Robinson and realize how easy it was for common clay to trip up and into a gas chamber. Black Angel has a nonentity we barely meet (John Bennett) charged right off with murder, and a wife ticking down to his scheduled execution, a “good girl” (June Vincent) who won’t mind using born loser Dan Duryea to find the real killer.

Wrinkle here is that Duryea might be the killer, if unaware of the fact, complications the handiwork of source author Cornell Woolrich, who for many is sufficient reason to look at Black Angel. I like how Vincent strings Duryea along, being handsy with him and seeming to promise he’ll be successor to the husband however the case turns out, Duryea this time lovelorn rather than a cruel exploiter of women. This actor was clearly floated here for something other than villainy or weaklings. Roy William Neill directs Black Angel, having graduated from the Sherlock Holmes series, his future seeming assured for noir and like subjects had not death claimed him in 12/46 at age fifty-nine. Universal constructs a lavish nightclub set and stages most of action around it, a boost to production values and off-set to perception that Black Angel is more of “B” same. Universal really had to earn whatever first-run placement they got, offerings from them vetted thorough before “A” dates were bestowed. Black Angel was released as a nice standard DVD, then more recently a Blu-Ray from Kino.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Phantom At Fairground

 "Old-Time Movies" Among Coney Marvels

Coney Island for me was merely a place movie characters went to. Real people attended too of course, in droves as to be startling. Here seemed spot where one stood in line just to wade into vastness of surf. To gather where you’ve no space to turn seems anything but inviting, though I’m told stress of the city made any retreat a godsend despite gobs of humanity pressed firm together. There surely was joy at Coney, an East Coast Disneyland decades before there was a Disneyland, nights lit to splendor few experienced before, a best yet exhibit of modern miracle that was electricity. For New Yorkers, it was a World’s Fair built to last. I never went and assume little remains of what once-mobs beheld. There are myriad Coney postcards among attics yet, trickle from these to eBay a never-will-end process. Of ghosts to awake me was above glimpse of boys regarding “Stauch’s Original Old-Time Movies,” which I understand rolled up its screen in 1940, so this was mid-late thirties. I thought for a while we were in 1925, youngsters gathered to see Phantom of the Opera when it was new, too good to be true, though this will more than do, us close among tough troop of ragamuffins there to see if stuff so ancient still has juice to quench them.

These boys being “show me” sort would have missed Lon Chaney when fresh, but heard of him from parents. The Phantom unmasked sent mom-pop screaming into streets and legend of that persisted. Not from this troupe would screams come. “Ironic” generations were incubating here, poised to jeer what unnerved a public of years past. Were nickels or dimes fair fare to go in and face Phantoms? The fact latter won’t talk is known to these scruffs, “old-time” films code for screen silence. Charlie Chaplin lends support with comedy gone back to 1914 (Caught in a Cabaret), seemingly before anybody in the world was born. This group looks like what Rocky Sullivan corrupted upon release from stir and coming back to his old neighborhood. One looking at the camera w/ripped shirt suggests Billy Halop with mouth curled close to a snarl. I would not have liked passing this bunch on my way to violin lessons at age twelve. So NY/NJ boys smoked openly in the street? Grown-ups onlooking are tentative, knowing potential trouble when they see it.


From where did Stauch’s book the print? Surely not Universal, done and out of Phantom trade by this time. I’ll guess they used 16mm Kodascope. As to advertising out front, there is a half-sheet for the 1930 reissue, with sound and Technicolor scenes, a “Now Playing” snipe to cover up promise of these. Promo leaned on pageantry rather than the Phantom himself, policy upon ’25 release and some period later to keep mask-less visage off placards. Think what a cloudburst would do to all this, like the Liberty letting its Panther Girl of the Kongo one-sheet get drenched by elements in 1967. Would storms send Stauch staff hurriedly out to drag standees to safety? --- or did they say never mind, it’s only paper. Looks like 11x14 lobby cards on display in addition to 8X10 stills, a temptation to rogues. Did our Dead-Enders take home souvenirs? Co-attraction Chaplin was rote matter for more than mere “old-time” engaging. His two-reelers had been in recent circulation by RKO at member houses all over and well-received by all. Did Coney fans figure on flicks as adjunct to ice cream and cotton candy? Shows ran to midnight at least. Note loudspeaker out front. Oh, for a recording of the barker’s spiel. Bet Phantom was never so fun before this or since.

Coney Island was much about open air and water everywhere, but there were attractions behind doors, some revolved around water as well, punishing and devastating downpours, as in a building dedicated to the Johnstown Flood and all its horror, a place you’d enter to experience death up close. People then as now were fascinated by doom onrushing, nature turned upon all and claiming victims indiscriminately. Imagine a structure built upon premise of fate inescapable. Did it become a grocer's or warehouse later? Reminiscent this is of when the 1904 St. Louis fair saluted Galveston on graphic terms. Folks like learning how others go about perishing, being nature of beasts we are. Coney had rides that look dangerous, would likely be banned now. “Shoot the Chutes” was hazardous enough to knock Fatty and his date sideways and into drink for his 1917 comedy made on site, but more of that later. You could empty a day and night at Coney. It was cheap, and for everybody. A “frankfurter and roll” cost ten cents. When did we start calling them hot dogs? (Answer: they already were, per trade ad below)

There were bath houses and steam rooms where boys shunned fat men giving them glimpse of what they might one day become. Dance halls of sufficient enormity were places you'd enter alone but not necessarily come out that way. Bands were everywhere and songs became hits at Coney. Go Where the Crowds Go to hear Al Ferguson play “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again” as diners look off balconies to enjoy the dance, but there’s eerily Coconut Grove-ish aura to raised space with obscure means of egress. I perused You Tube and found “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again,” a 1911 recording on Edison wax. It so far has 68 listens, so I am in rarified company. The song amuses and has true things to say of people and life, as much of popular tuning did in that day. After-meal cigars were had from counters bigger than anything we see today to sell any product. What made men give up cigars so completely? To be defined by your smoke … who was the last to do that --- Clint Eastwood in his spaghettis? … Arnold Schwarzenegger? I’ll paraphrase Buster in The Playhouse saying “This fellow Stauch seems to be the whole show.” Did Stauch own Coney Island? “The Capitol of the Pleasure City” was his, but Stauch had lots of capitols, as building fronts attest. Louis Stauch was loved, and generous to charity. He lived to see Coney decline and most of his structures demolished.

Coney Island peaked before World War One, so Fatty, Buster, and Al going there in 1917 may amount to valedictory for the place. All doors, parks, and places swung open to Roscoe. Him enjoying Coney was guarantee we all could, whatever a distance getting there. If someone had shown Arbuckle a crystal ball of what was going to happen to him, I don’t think he could have believed it. For that matter, how could anyone so in grip of Fatty love? Prints of Coney Island are gloriously upgraded from how they used to look, varied specimen sprinkled about You Tube. Action begins on the beach, a quiet spot, for folks knowing Fatty was present would have pushed waves back. As it is, we see onlookers distant from a pier. Imagine Coney management holding closer crowds at bay. Fatty has a nag wife and can’t get shed of her, tosses sand down the front of her shore outfit then buries himself altogether near the waterline, using a periscope to see from under the pile. How miserably uncomfortable silent comedy making was. Could there be enough showers to keep slog from under one’s very skin? Roscoe was known as dapper offscreen, maybe his way of asserting, I can be pristine clean as any of you, despite grime to which I’m daily plunged. Part why all gravitated to Fatty was his willingness to take punishment and be chipper about it, a gladsome friend for all. Loss of that is something we’ll never quite conceptualize from such time distant. Buster Keaton of immortality Arbuckle had taken away gives forecast of his own varied things to come, at one point doing a backflip that looks more special effect than feat humans could perform, but there is Buster doing it, and we are yet amazed. Al St. John is sans necessary teeth, more likeable the more you endure him. Still can’t believe he appeared in person at the Liberty, during the fifties (in “Bad Fuzzy” guise). Look please at the very studied still above, one of first I suspect so carefully composed, Buster with the sledge, Fatty’s hat headed skyward, an image endlessly reprinted and forever emblematic of silent comedy as utterly carefree epoch it was.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Morality Put Through Precode Wringer


Blondie Johnson (1933) Takes More Than Expected Liberties

Joan Blondell is a distaff Little Caesar, "a new kind of Gold Digger," so says the trailer, but Gold Diggers didn't engineer murders as does Blondie here, even if opening hardship appears to justify whatever the title character must do to get by. Warners' was a skewed morality before Code enforcement spelled rules out for them. As with Cagney in Lady Killer, where's need of halting fun just because a victim "croaks"? There was mindset to effect that survival necessarily meant collateral damage, up to and including death to those that have it coming or sometimes ones that don't. We're not to lose sympathy with Blondell even when she engineers a rival gangster's machine-gunning, it settled that whatever stretch she draws will pass quick and barely blip the happy end with fellow criminal Chester Morris. Maybe moral watchdogs had at least something of a point.

"Hard-Hearted But Sweet As Sin" was advertising's apt describe of Blondell and precode sin that was sweet indeed, even where lives were forfeited. WB's essential message was that "nothing matters but dough," and at bottom of a Depression from which Blondie Johnson sprung (released 2/33), wasn't that everyone's take? Could be, but probably not, as many civilians rejected cynicism and world-weariness of ones who wrote rules of precode and precept of no rules except keeping ahead of the other fellow. Such artists represented anything but a mainstream, but we identify with them, not chumps whose change they leeched for privilege of seeing Blondie Johnson. What got obscured by pace and patter was Blondell intensity in early establishing poverty that drives her to crime; Bette Davis at Academy-prime could not have done these scenes better. And to think Blondell rated herself below capacity to play high drama. Maybe she knew that in a long run, that was less entertaining. She had come from vaudeville, where they understood getting on and off quick, and to amuse in the doing, purest essence of any act, or any art for that matter. Whatever glimpse we got of Blondell's dramatic gifts would be just that --- then on to a next set-up. By these measures, she may have been the best actress WB ever had.
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