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Monday, May 15, 2023

Category Called Comedy #1


5/15/2023: Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Boy's Ranch, and Cross My Heart

Another new feature to recur at Greenbriar, ads, images, discoveries made along comedy lines: Bells are ringing among Laurel and Hardians as Flicker Alley announces 1927 output of the team for Blu-Ray, this result of the lot passing into Public Domain. Likelihood is balance of silents to follow as 28-29 tick by, goal being entirety of voiceless L&H fresh-disced after years unavailable but for long OOP DVD with quality below what is promised for these. Satisfactory seemed silents when content was half as old as now, fifty years’ time enough for expectation to rise and nothing short of worldwide excavation to suffice. Fans will parse these like Chaplin Mutuals when Blu-released, Keaton shorts the same. I can hear, What about that shot where Stan walks through the door? --- It was in my 1968 Blackhawk print --- why not here? For myself, whatever comes from Flicker Alley will do. No way will this team of L&H archivists muck a job they’ve waited most of lives to engage. Michelangelo did not climb off his scaffold till perfection was reached … I suspect same mentality prevails here. Will best quality in ninety-six years make the comedies play better? Perhaps for late-coming lookers-on. For me, there could be no substitute for The Second Hundred Years arriving by post from Davenport, Iowa and flashing first on a window shade-turned-screen, marvel no more to be recaptured than any event that made being fourteen-years-old unique. What pleases is this as evidence that Laurel and Hardy are here to stay at least a little longer, hopefully as long as I last anyway, and past that, who cares? Several of this first selection exists only on 16mm, or so I’m told. Has Flicker Alley made discoveries we don’t know about? Reason enough to buy will be mere seeing what miracles they’ve come up with.

--- Growing (perceived) old found Buster Keaton wisdom on a  range of topics, here as page filler re comedy other than his own from around time The Buster Keaton Story skunked up cinemas in 1957. Press attention was good toward Buster getting TV work plus invites to live-perform, though he was never out of demand, could in fact have worked past one hundred had we been so fortunate to keep him longer. Some of comic preferences have been cited in bios, but here they are in whole, and I was happy to come across this piece on reverse side of a theatre ad for The Pride and the Passion. BK’s all-time favorites are Fields, Chaplin, and Harry Langdon. How known was Langdon by 1957? Not very (at all?) by youth at least (this article likely pre-dated The Golden Age of Comedy, which did notice Langdon and make him visible to '57-58 viewers). Bill Fields had been gone nearly long as Langdon, his best work in talkies and many of those still around. I wonder when Buster would last have watched Harry, probably not in years. Comparative youngsters cited are Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, and Lou Costello, two for which Keaton wrote gags at MGM. Someone told me Skelton ducked questions re Buster’s influence upon him. True? Marie Dressler and Lucille Ball are the top comediennes on Keaton’s list, Dressler by 1957 turning up on late shows, Lucy undisputed queen bee of TV. “Light comics” Hope, Benny, Rooney … check, but who’s this Walter C. Kelly other than Grace’s uncle? Vaudeville recall might help, let’s just say Walter’s stuff wouldn’t survive thirty seconds on a stage today for reasons research will explain. Is there film anywhere on this utterly forgotten artist? Ditto dialect talents, names few but elder Buster would have known (Joe Welsh done since 1919, while Smith and Dale performed into the 1960's).

BOY’S RANCH (1946) --- Did you know audiences cried when five-year-old Jackie “Butch” Jenkins waved at passing trains in The Human Comedy? He was what we fought for, apart from Betty Grable. Jackie stayed a star for handful of years, never eager to act and the less so as he got older. Boy’s Ranch was among few per se vehicles for Jack. Till then he was support for grown-ups and bigger moppets. Bloodhounds won’t locate Boy’s Ranch online, and Warner Archive has no disc. TCM uses it, but spottily. Why should I or anyone bother? Maybe obscurity itself supplies an answer, MGM smacking another ball at fence that was Boy’s Town, historic hit from 1938 that saw greater profit than anything so modest done since. Boy’s Ranch was customized to amuse and warm hearts. Success at that warm coffers as well, failures less recalled, if not objects for scorn. More such misfires are strewn in studio libraries. Jack was likeable without Margaret O’Brian’s genius, his back-up in Boy’s Ranch a reliable Darryl Hickman the same year he did not witness Martha Ivers killing her aunt with a walking stick. Then there is Skippy Homeier for vinegar, rotten-to-core sort he’d stay for much of adult career to follow. James Craig was putative adult lead, did four pictures with Jack, small detail mattering oddly to me. So does seeing Boy’s Ranch, especially after impression of Chicago’s La Salle ad selling it as “Human, Hilarious Drama of Real People.” Talk about management putting in a workday … open at 7:45 AM, last show at 12:45 AM. Were there bunks upstairs upon which to crash with Boy’s Ranch fatigue? Imagine Chicagoans seated at barstools past midnight, one of them says, Hey. Let’s go see Boy’s Ranch. There’s a 12:45 show! … and off they all go.

CROSS MY HEART (1946) --- The combination of Betty Hutton with Sonny Tufts may not seem an entirely cheerful prospect for some, yet here they were, and remaking True Confession from but nine years before, which itself did not call for an encore, let alone redoing by lesser talent than Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. Tufts drank and had become surly over being a star. Word is he and the wife drove down Hollywood Blvd. to observe his name on marquees, point at which Sonny exited the vehicle to warn customers not to go in and watch his rotten movie. Apparently he did this on occasion of several Sonny Tufts movies. Paramount had odd ideas for screen teams, comedy left in hands of Veronica Lake and Eddie Bracken for instance, and enhancement to neither. Those plus Cross My Heart are seen so seldom as to make you think they never even existed, ads prepared for a sort of bizarro universe of film dreamed up but never made. Betty Hutton after the war was needed less, her energy too energetic now that peace was won and everyone was ready to calm down and go out less. Paramount felt the pinch worse for owning so many theatres sitting fallow, unkindest cut inflicted by a seeming ingrate government wanting to divorce studios from their exhibition venues. Look at all that help and propaganda movies supplied to the fight, and this was thanks they got? Well, what have you done for us lately, replied Uncle Sam. 1946 when Cross My Heart came out was still a banner year at least, Hollywood’s best so far, as in ever, but sage observers knew that wasn’t going to last, especially where product was no better than Cross My Heart. Would it amuse even slightly if somehow we were able to see it?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Who knew that Grace Kelly was the neice of Walt (Pogo) Kelly? I did not until today.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

No movie with the tagline "Murder in the Mirth Degree" is worth watching.

1:51 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Re those long hours for "Boys' Ranch": During the war theaters stretched hours for the benefit of night and swing shifts workers. Perhaps plants were still winding down in '46? Or there were enough insomniacs to keep the doors open until television brought Late Show movies into the home?

As for Stan and Ollie, this may force me to finally break down and supplement my Sony five-DVD carousel with a BluRay player.

I accumulated the "Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy" discs eons ago, before they started commanding big money on eBay (they've slipped considerably in the past few years). Still annoyed by the cheesy and often careless stock music, even if it's "historically accurate" from an early talkie reissue. In pioneer DVD days the boys' talkie shorts weren't available in America at all, aside from gray market transfers of the "Nostalgia Merchant" VHS tapes (Not counting all those PD releases of "The Stolen Jools" and "Tree in a Test Tube", supplemented by a few pre-teaming silents).

I preordered what was to be Richard Feiner's definitive official upgrade set from an outfit called, I think, Eleven Memories. My outlay was something like $130. Never heard from them again, but recall some fan forum posing that a small number of sets were sent out with proof discs and paper labels. There was talk of suing Feiner, reportedly in way over his head with health ruined by nitrate dust.

6:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Richard M. Roberts with regard Walter C. Kelly:


Walter C. Kelly did make four feature films for Paramount in the mid-late 30's, including one titled after his stage moniker, THE VIRGINIA JUDGE (1935). He comes off as a jovial older guy, not particularly humorous. I have a print of another of his films, a talkie remake of MCFADDEN'S FLATS (1935) in which he co-stars with Andy Clyde. He was a well-known vaudeville and stage act, but he would probably not be popular today as he was apparently rather racist in both his humor and his off-stage personality. He was the prime performer who protested against Bert Williams joining the Ziegfeld Follies and organized a walkout with other stars then working in the show, which Ziegfeld fortunately rebuffed with the comment, "I can replace all of you, I can't replace Bert Williams."


8:03 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The stock music in the 1990s set of Laurel & Hardy silents wasn't from any sound-era reissue; producer Michael Agee had several Vitaphone soundtracks of orchestra scores, vintage 1929 (Laurel & Hardy's THAT'S MY WIFE and ANGORA LOVE, and a couple of Our Gang shorts.) He simply separated each 20-minute accompaniment into individual song tracks and cues. Then he pieced the various selections together to fit the Laurel & Hardy silents that had no soundtracks. Much like the early L & H talkies that used those familiar stock melodies prepared by LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley, and the 1936-38 L & H reissues that had new background orchestrations stitched together by film editor William Ziegler.

Some of the original Vitaphone scoring used popular songs of the day to punctuate the visuals (so THAT'S MY WIFE -- with Laurel in drag opposite Hardy -- begins with the appropriate "Is He My Boy Friend?"). But the topical musical jokes didn't matter 70 years later for video, and the Vitaphone music was now just generic, serviceable accompaniment.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I've been waiting for that Laurel & Hardy set for years -- decades probably. I remember a mythic compilation of silent L&H one archivist was promising on internet discussion boards for years. I've read that silent comedies from the last couple of years before sound are in worse shape than those from earlier on because the earlier ones were preserved for re-issue.

3:33 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Robert, the earlier ones were reprinted on 16mm safety film in the 1930s by the Kodascope Library, for rental and sale as home movies. That's why many of the earliest Laurel & Hardy comedies survive in better condition, albeit in the 16mm gauge -- no nitrate decomposition. Some of the Roach silents were already in the earliest stages of decomposition by 1956, when Robert Youngson consulted them for his forthcoming feature THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY.

Mr. Benson is correct about the Eleven Memories set -- it was announced online, and the manufacturer was taking orders but never delivered. My understanding is, only when one angry customer threatened mail fraud did the manufacturer send a token set of proofs, on DVD-R and with paper sleeves. But the actual set was never released to the public.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

What a terrific post! Many great topics!

The Laurel and Hardy set is, of course, beyond way overdue. A lot of what is semi-available on disc of the 1927 stuff looks like it's pieced together from many sources, even some 9.5mm. Can't wait to get mine!

Which leads us to Keaton's list and it's notable omission. One of Buster's most widely printed quotes from later life: "Chaplin wasn't the funniest. I wasn't the funniest. Stan Laurel was the funniest".
The Skelton-Keaton distancing does seem to have been a real thing, very odd considering Buster's contributions to Red's career at Metro. Even more curious since Skelton was very open about his admiration of older comedians like Ed Wynn, Bert Lahr and Chaplin (he tried to make use of Charlie's old studio!) But I get the impression many of the star comics at MGM in the 40's like Groucho and Lou Costello were unsettled by Keaton's assistance: maybe his mere presence was a too ominous a reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn for a famous funny man. On the other hand, Metro's leading ladies like Lana Turner and Judy Garland seemed to have delighted in the little bits of business he would invent for them on set and gave him full gleeful credit.

I kind of lump Butch Jenkins in with Mary Ann Jackson: talented funny-looking-but-in-a-good-way child performers who simply decided they were through with the play acting business and quit while they were ahead.

And, yes, Paramount did have some odd ideas in screen teams, even in their B's. Well, at least interesting. Anna May Wong and Akim Tamiroff? Lynne Overman and Roscoe Karns?

Keep up the good work, the posts are getting better and better!

10:02 PM  
Blogger RobW said...

I was one of the few who got that L& H silents set ( although I never threatened mail fraud) and it's a mess. Discs are mislabelled, menus often had the wrong tiles and most of the shorts I believe were simply copied from the image discs. It also came with a lot of extra Roach material, including some of the streamliners.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I'm doing an Arbuckle/Keaton program right now in Toronto. I had seen the Arbuckle feature LEAP YEAR in 8mm long ago and now on DVD. Have just seen THE ROUND UP and THE LIFE OF THE PARTY. They are fun but not in the same league with the Chaplin and Keaton features in my view.

9:19 AM  

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