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Monday, April 12, 2021

Chaplin Heats Up For a 30's Revive

Where Right Music Makes Them Funnier

Chaplin did twelve comedies for Mutual during 1916-17. They are, as a group, the best things he made. I forget how many iterations have gone through my hands, starting with 8mm, to 16, video, laser, DVD, more DVD, then Blu-Ray, Regions One, then Two. That is how high I regard them. Silent comedy in its day, and for revivals after, aimed at “Happy Times and Jolly Moments” (to cite a title of one clip compilation), music a must to enhance mood whether live or canned on a track. Popular tunes might be used, or “old-timey” piano tracking salted with stingers for each fall, crash, shot, bark. Same tricks applied to cartoons were used also to juice live action bereft of talk. Hal Roach applied music-effects to comedies soon as he practically could, via synchronized discs. Just watch ’28-29 releases Habeas Corpus, We Faw Down, Liberty, That’s My Wife, other Laurel-Hardys that used hits of the day to liven backdrop. Slapstick seems unearthly where no sound comes with it. The Mutuals were less recognized classics than simple sure things to please a crowd, including ones gathered well after sound took over. Independent producer and former exhibitor Amadee Van Beuren found he could sell these comedies as well as if new … they were still that funny … more so with V for vigor scores he commissioned from hot jazz makers Gene Rodemich and Winston Sharples. Van Beuren rolled dice in buying six of the twelve at $10K apiece, guessing that test screenings would pave way toward RKO agreeing to distribute the group, plus remaining half-dozen should initial ones click, which they assuredly did.

Idea was to challenge contagion of double features by making shorts uniquely attractive, theatres using enough one and two-reelers to fill much of time a second full-length would run. Chaplin had stayed a meaningful name in old two-reelers even as his current policy was features. There was him, then all the rest, not a wonder he was bowed to as master of all slapstick surveyed. Press beyond trades lauded Chaplin regular, one NY sheet calling for return “of those old custard pie throwing pictures that Chaplin used to be seen in.” Never mind he seldom had thrown pies, perception being all, as one exhib in Provincetown, RI found when A Dog’s Life showed “plenty of life” for a 1931 encore (the short dated to 1918). Rurals used Chaplin where he could prop up weak sisters, never mind how far back footage went. Van Beuren knew all this and so felt his investment a safe one. Silent comedy apart from Chaplin was less sure. I don’t know a group other than his Mutuals revived so prominently once talk came. Did patrons miss Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, mutely tossing their pies? Never mind, as few seemed willing to gamble on names other than Chaplin.

A test for Easy Street in September 1932 put it with minor accompany of Radio Patrol, a Universal programmer no one expected to leap fences, so credit, or blame, would rest with the comedy. Old-school promotion was used, Chaplin lookalikes sought among attending kids, a best resembler in receipt of “a fine saddle horse” (but what would Mom say when he/she rode the nag home?). Appeal having been proven saw “all RKO circuit houses” getting Easy Street with The Phantom of Crestwood, a nice mood switch from slapstick to spine-tingling. Showmen were happy, as in very. The Mutuals, all twelve, ran from fall 1932 into 1934. Here was “Chaplinitis” again, others sniffing money from other of the comic's residue, getting what they could of even older Keystone and Essanay comedies he had made, these rolled out through the 30’s and well after, bunched by however many a theatre could want. So what if they played primitive, so long as tricked out with music, any music, be it stock, bought, or improvised. Call them Parades, A Night With ..., Laff Shows. Charlie was still King, “Wonderful, Lovable, Laughable.” The man himself was even known to attend these paste-ups and laugh the loudest.

The Mutuals modernly look better --- never so vivid as now --- but freewheel is largely out of their music (a lot of current scores still are plenty good however). I was sent a couple sets with Van Beuren tracks (ported from old lasers and/or analog transfers), having not experienced them for years. It was like a plate of Mexican jump beans. So what is “appropriate” accompany for these? Give me VB vitamins from here on. I played The Cure A-B between jazzed-up ’32 and one of the Blu-Ray treatments … no contest, one hot, the other a chill. Restored-to-the-sky falls to earth where music belongs less to Chaplin than Caligari. The Van Beurens were scored to zip-speed of 24 frames-per-second, standard sound projection, thus Charlie at a dead run while accompany tries to stay ahead of him. Tracks were recorded on the east coast, musicians hired out of bands a block, or subway, distant. It is said Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among later-prominent others, performed for the Chaplins, no doubt glad to get the work. Who knows how fast frames are suppose to pass through apertures? Cameras were cranked by hand, so scratch hope of uniformity. Same with projectors giving patronage a bum’s rush where shows ran overtime and for that reason or other you had to clear the house. With editing so rapid-fire as movies practice today (heck, it’s been that way for twenty years), does Chaplin at 24 fps seem too fast? --- I mean to a modern audience, not fossils wanting to slow silent shows down. Think those raised on video games push brakes? Complaining that they should reveals more about us than them.

For everyone who watches a silent film, there are that many different notions of how to present them. I’ve presented talkless shows more often wrong than right. A local art guild invited me and my Eumig 8mm projector to a 1972 gathering, my choice for delectation The General. The Eumig offered two speeds, 18 and 24 frames-per-second. I was green enough to assume all silent movies ran properly at 18, while talkies went 24. The show was agony, my advantage in projecting the fact I did not have to face the audience and observe their suffering, it being dark enough for me and the walkouts not to exchange disappointed looks. Did I learn from the experience? Evidently not, for less than a year later I inflicted Phantom of the Opera upon fellow collegiates who at least had recourse of that evening’s BYOB policy. Not a few would ask Why do you watch these? At times I found it hard to answer. It took home video to make latter-day silent movie presentations idiot-proof.

Music was for many as much an issue as speed. What worked best? An audience would realize quick what didn’t; that turned lots off silents barely in. I used to play Chopin against all my 8mm, and yes, sometimes it was against, Etudes lagging always behind Keystone chases. How many of us had record libraries from which to select ideal mood? Moon Mullins used a 78 of calliope music to go with his, no matter what silent he showed. It was easier then to accept aural anomalies, for how often did we get opportunity to view pre-talk? No two theatres accompanied the same when Chaplin’s Mutuals were new, the man or woman at keyboards having it their way (did cue sheets go out with these comedies? I’ve not seen any). Some theatres drew patrons on the reputation of who provided music, local stars born by such means. Imagine getting applause all day, every day, from neighbors who came as much to hear you as watch movies. I had a prodigy aunt who accompanied 20’s shows when she was still a kid. Here was practical reason for youngsters to take piano lessons. Work your way up to playing for Charlie Chaplin … now there’s motivation to learn.

So what was initial accompany for Mutuals in 1916-17 --- Fox Trots, the Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear, other fad tunes of the time? You wonder if anyone still digs out yellowed song sheets to tee off Easy Street or The Rink with what was popular over a hundred years ago. Imagine too how many music styles have escorted Chaplin to parties since. Van Bueren’s jazz, “hot” before it later became “swing,” seems ideal to my ears. These scores staked an early 30’s claim on films otherwise elderly. Chaplin's Mutual comedies were thus renewed, would "belong" thanks to music that gave them fresh voice for those who remembered plus ones arriving new to the Chaplin experience, a fusion of energetic “now” wedded to still enjoyed “then.” Maybe some at the time deplored such an update, but for most I suspect it more than pleased. And for us, what’s the difference between Bunny Hugs and Hot Jazz? Chaplin’s comedy was timeless, stayed that way … he rises even above mournful modern scores. Dizzying are rebirths the Mutual lot has had. So many. Public domain status will do that. Footage found here, lost there, intertitles as they initially were, or faked to look that way, “Slo-mo” applied to fury of those who want Charlie to pick up his pace (reverence overkill?). For all of time kid-watching, for instance, The Pawnshop, I could have paved four more lanes to Winston-Salem, given application to asphalt rather than apertures. The game now, or call it obsession, is to achieve state of Mutual grace, but where is consensus as to that? Find me two, let alone more, in Mutual harmony.

Many thanks to Scott MacGillivray, who made this column possible. For further info re the Chaplin Mutual series, consult Michael Hayde's definitive account, Chaplin's Vintage Year, a great read, as are all books Hayde has written. 

Monday, April 05, 2021

WB Leads a Pigskin Parade


When College Ball Captivated Us All

The role of Pat O'Brien's career. He'd be asked about this one all the way to the end, sport buffs regarding the biopic as almost a religious totem. Football as embodiment of the American spirit was never so keyed as here. Part of that was gear-up to coming war, Rockne's big speech about grid standing-in for needed combat among male youth being no coincidence. Here was training for more than mere whipping of opposer teams, stakes having widened to an arena that was worldwide and poised to boil over. These boys would soon enough trade leather helmets for steel ones. Rockne as presented by Warners personified preparedness in addition to character and sportsmanship. A screen bio could not have been better timed. There was initial effort to have James Cagney play him, but neither the Rocknes nor Notre Dame administrators liked the idea of a badman playing such a good man, so scotch went that proposal. O'Brien worked up the mannerisms and speech patterns, trying hard to put over singularity of a persona many remembered to last detail. As Rockne had a sort of Bull Montana look, so too would Pat with help of facial appliance. Were Knute Rockne --- All American made ten years later, they probably wouldn't have gone to such length toward authenticity.

Rockne-devised plays are tendered as revolutionary to the game. Did he really invent the forward pass? My knowing nothing about football doesn't help, so why do movies about the sport appeal more as I get older? Maybe it's regret for not having embraced it sooner, but not to extent of playing. I hear guys can get hurt doing that. Notable names besides Rockne are on and off quick. No sooner do we know Ronald Reagan's George Gipp than he's breathing his last, but you could hardly tell Rockne's story without Gipp. Don't know if Gipp's deathbed speech was actual, or Rockne's repeating it later. Anyhow, it works from sentiment angle. There's "scandal" for third-act suspense, upon which no suspense hangs as we know Knute would never have paid off his players or rigged their academic sheets. This was all-the-way white rinse with the Rockne family looking on, not unlike what Universal dealt when it told the Glenn Miller Story in 1954. If there was a dark side to this man, certainly we get none of it here.

There's a good sense of the coach having to renew his brand every three years as star athletes graduate. The pressure to keep winning must indeed have been enormous. Rockne thinks at one point he's all washed up for losing just one match, a reaction typical, I'd guess, of any coach who got out-scored. Warners wanted to widen appeal of Knute Rockne --- All American by making it as much about America as land of opportunity for immigrants seeking upward mobility, and that's thrust of at least an opening reel where we meet Knute and Norwegian family back in the old country. Patriotic music accompanies all this. America as ultimate dreamscape would be defended with arms soon enough. Toward Rockne as an almost sacred figure came priestly O'Brien whose public image was pristine as reverse-collar parts he played in major hit Angels With Dirty Faces and more recent, and even bigger, The Fighting 69th. In a long run, he was probably the better choice for this role over Cagney, it being easier to subsume the O'Brien personality in deference to legend and icon that was Knute Rockne.

Warners' campaign was their customary massive for the time. Knute Rockne --- All American was culmination of far-flung premiering that dated back to 42nd Street and continued through to junket opens for Dodge City and The Fighting 69th. War would curb some of such extravagance, but for now, skies were the limit so far as making events of these bows. Knute Rockne --- All American got an Indiana launch and proclamation from the governor of that state of "Knute Rockne Week" to coincide with a star-studded premiere. Such occasion was great for local economy as train-loads rolled through and spent heavy along the way. Tens of thousands lining streets would after all get hungry and need lodging. Since when had Indiana merchants and tradesmen had it so good? South Bend's three theatres were booked and sold out. O'Brien pal Jim Cagney came along to personal appear, with Bob Hope acting as M.C.

Famous coaches who'd known Rockne appeared in, and were saluted by, the film, bringing out hordes who had worked with these and entire student bodies besides. It was a collegiate round robin and word-of-mouth snowball, the kind you couldn't buy no matter the ads placed or dollars put forth. Focal point for promotion was Notre Dame, where Rockne hung his helmet for the whole of a coaching career and where his name was revered above all others. Warners sent addresses of every alumni association to showmen across the country, goal being for each to make contact and have clubs attend en masse. Schools were targeted with tie-in rallies, proms, and the inevitable goal-kicking contests.

WB hedged bets by holding costs down to $646K. Domestic rentals were a gratifying $1.5 million, but foreign was an expected bust --- $128K --- as what did they care about our colleges or football? The Rockne story with Cagney would indeed have done better, but then Warners would have been obliged to spend more making it, thus a more-less dog fall in the end. The thing was about football, after all, and that wasn't stuff of widest audience appeal. TV prints of Knute Rockne --- All American were for years truncated because of dialogue that had to be taken out, including the "Gipper" speech. Controversy began with a radio scribe who sued Warners years before, and they had failed to settle in terms of TV use of disputed footage. It's only been recent that vital stuff has been put back to make Knute Rockne --- All American at last play as it did in 1940. TCM runs a nice HD transfer of the complete version.

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.

What change teaches us is 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 how many in 1942 knew 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 promise to eventual 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.
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