Love, Loot and Crash

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on April 24, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the still-popular Keystone comedy short Love, Loot and Crash (1915). People like to check this one out for two reasons. (A) It is one of the first comedies with a prominent role for Charley Chase, who wouldn’t be a proper star until almost a decade later at Hal Roach. And (B) it also features Harold Lloyd in a small role as a fruit vendor; this was during his very brief stint at Keystone.

The plot: a pair or crooks have a plan to rob a house—one of them will go in drag and masquerade as a cook, answering a want ad. The whole thing is ruined when a policeman comes in for his usual graft…some free food and hanging around the kitchen to flirt. The crook panics and throws the cop in the cellar, then flees with his cohort and the daughter of the house who wants to elope. The father chases them down the street. Then the cop grabs a bunch of his fellow Keystone Kops and they pursue, giving us A VERY satisfying comic chase — one of the very best of the early ones. I talk about it a bit in Chain of Fools in the context of cross-cutting.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #81: The Cookin’ Cajun

Posted in Comedy, Crackers, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , on April 24, 2014 by travsd

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The only cooking show I ever cared a fig about was something I knew as The Cookin’ Cajun, a local New Orleans show (I think) that was broadcast nationally during the cable tv explosion that started in the early 1980s.  I say “I think” to all of this, because I have had the goddamnedest time tracking this down and I know I’m not crazy. Justin Wilson’s wiki page scarcely mentions his television work, as does Justinwilson.com. To hear them tell it, Wilson was just a local Louisiana humorist. I finally found reference to the show in his obits in The New York Times and USA Today, so I know I’m not crackers. IMDB mentions a show called Lousiana Cookin’. That must be the same one, broadcast under another name when it was syndicated. Sources are saying it was a PBS show although I don’t recall watching it on PBS.

At any rate, Justin Wilson (1914-2001, the host, whose birthday it is today) has to have been the most entertaining character ever to host a cooking show. Sure, there’s Julia Child, but Wilson was actively a comedian, who wove jokes, malapropisms, and stories throughout his entire presentation. It was as full of interesting language and human behavior as it was tips on how to make delicious food. That’s a real culture show, baby! Wilson talked in a Cajun patois, and seemed to say EVERYTHING in some way I wanted to repeat. His catchphrases were “Hoo, boy!” and “I gaurontee”. But I also loved how he pronounced “sauternes wine” (“so-toin wahn”). And “way up no’th there in Shrevepo’t”. And how he mixed up his verb tenses. An enthusiasm for this show was a rare bonding experience for me and my dad; it was impossible not to get a kick out of this apparently rural Southern character.

I say apparently because — of course — he wasn’t an actual Cajun. I never gave it much deep thought, but I always assumed that there was some element of genuineness in what Wilson did, he did it so thoroughly, with so much detail, and apparent love. But he wasn’t a real Cajun. His mother was Louisiana French, which is how he came by his knowledge of both French and cooking. But Louisiana history is complicated. The Cajuns were a specific French American population who had emigrated from Canada and lived mostly in rural areas. Furthermore, Wilson was only half-French, hence his Anglo last name. His father was an important Louisiana politician. So while many people, including (especially) many Louisianans dearly loved Wilson’s impersonations of a Cajun, some Cajuns were offended.

But Hoo Boy, I guarontee, that was a good act. It turns out he had started out as a safety engineer, part of whose job involved giving safety lectures. He began to liven these up with his impersonations. Which evolved into comedy records. Which evolved into a local tv show. Which eventually went national. We used to marvel “Who the hell is this guy? Where did he come from?” There was no explanation.

But I tell you this: it is too bad that he was too late for vaudeville, because he would have been a hit. And according to his obit, he was influenced by a major vaudevillian Will Rogers, whom he met in the 1930s (that’s plausible; Wilson’s dad was in Depression era politics). According to Wilson, Rogers told him, “Always tell ‘em clean, and always tell your audience something serious or they’ll think you’re a complete fool”.

To find out about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Hervé Villechaize

Posted in Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Human Anomalies, Indie Theatre, Movies, Television with tags , , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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Hervé Birthday? Happy Hervday?

At any rate, as if to either reaffirm or retract our last post (I can’t decide which) we write now to celebrate the late Hervé  Villechaize (1943-1993). Actually I can decide, it’s a reaffirmation. While Villechaize was the subject of ridicule during his life,  his story is full of tragedy, and it ought to give you pause (which is why, I understand, Peter Dinklage is developing a screenplay about him).

A Paris native, the diminutive Villechaize originally studied and practiced visual art. He moved to the U.S. in 1964 and his size created opportunities in the theatre just as off-off-Broadway and the avant-garde were taking off. This led to underground and then mainstream film, including The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), Greaser’s Palace (1972) by Robert Downey Sr, and biggest and best of all, the James Bond thriller The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). This naturally led to his very similar role as Tattoo on the TV show Fantasy Island (1977-1984), a classic case of success being a curse and familiarity breeding contempt.

Once you have pointed at the sky and yelled, “Ze Plane! Ze Plane!”, there is no escape from that island. He became reduced to a laugh line and a catch phrase, and all in a rather mean spirit. From the time of Fantasy Island going forward, almost all the work Villechaize could get consisted of humiliating cameos as himself, of the sort that were clearly based on the comedy premise, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Hervé  Villechaize showed up?” After many earlier attempts, he finally successfully committed suicide at the age of 50 by putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger.

Here is his last gig, on The Ben Stiller Show:

To find out about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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I Want My Mütter

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies, Travel with tags , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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I and progeny had a great time over Easter weekend, with a day trip down to Philadelphia and a pilgrimage to a place I’d long wanted to visit, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

Founded in 1863, the Mütter offers a rare chance to have a museum experience not unlike the kind Americans enjoyed in the mid-19th century — a bit sensational. The saving grace, and the reason that it continues to thrive to the present day (with this era’s pesky “academic standards”) is that the Mütter’s exhibitions are of genuine scientific (and nowadays also historical) value. You get to learn something, and it’s also smashing good entertainment.

The Mütter is a medical museum. Its displays are made up almost entirely of representations of human anomalies, pathologies, disorders, diseases, deformations and deviations. In a word: freaks. As an introductory feint we are presented with slides containing actual segments of Albert Einstein’s brain, sliced as thin as prosciutto. That’s about as healthy as we get, and it’s fairly hilarious in a Barnumesque way. Who’s to say those aren’t pieces of a dog’s brain? I mean, can you see the astrophysics going on inside? Almost all the rest of the museum is made up of bones and complete skeletons, specimens in glass jars, photographs, and wax or plaster models.

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For our phrenological edification, there are the Hyrtl Skulls, scores of former human heads arrayed on a grid, helpfully labelled as to their former identities, ranging from “Girolamo Zini, Rope Walker“, to a denizen of Ancient Egypt. One, full of pits and holes as though it were made of chalk, suffered from “syphilitic necrosis”. (Soldiers, take care where you spend your leave pay!) Nearby, we find a horn that once grew out of the forehead of Madame Dimanche. The skeleton of a 7′ 6″ giant stands next to that of a dwarf, across from a wax bust of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. H’m…what else. Ovarian cysts the size of basketballs. An enlarged colon about the size of a fairly terrifying moray eel. The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, an osssified man who suffered from the rare condition  fibrodysplasia ossificans. The alien-like skeleton of a hydrocephalic six year old with a head the size of a medicine ball. And man-made strangeness: Peruvian skulls with trepanation holes, a woman’s ribcage warped by corsets. Many jars containing the remains of lucky little souls who never got past the starting gate. The most extreme one I saw was a pair of conjoined twins, each of whom had a cleft palate.

A special exhibition Bodies at War shows bones shattered by bullets and balls during the Civil War. Grimm’s Anatomy illustrates famous fairy tales with relevant body parts (Hansel’s finger, a lock of Rapunzel’s hair).

And, just in case David Cronenberg shows up, there are dozens of surgical instruments on view. Scalpels, shears, bone cutters. A tooth key, for twisting out stubborn molars. Ouch!

The museum has strict rules about behavior: no photos, no touching, no lying on the floor (which I guess means no fainting). It’s physically small and well attended with the enthusiastically curious. Inevitably, one encounters teenage girls giggling, screaming and running away from the display cases.  Perplexing to me were the number of small children I saw there with parents. Don’t get me wrong. Starting when I was about ten years old I was seriously gung-ho for this kind of thing and have never waned in my enthusiasm since. But for little ones? The place is kind of a nightmare factory.

Is there something sick about a fascination with such stuff? I asked myself this as I toured the Mütter, and quickly answered it. Tragedy, comedy and freak shows have one major component in common. Human beings become interested when things go “wrong”, when they encounter something they don’t see every day. This is why it’s often said that the line between comedy and tragedy is razor thin. For the most part, the exhibitions at the Mütter Museum evoke our pity and our compassion. This room is the record of a LOT of human suffering. The sick person would be someone who could look on it with indifference and NOT be interested.

Learn more here http://muttermuseum.org/

Keaton and Arbuckle in “The Butcher Boy”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle short The Butcher Boy (1917).

This unremarkable little short is nowadays somewhat unduly enshrined in the public’s consciousness due to the fact that it contains the cinematic debut of Buster Keaton. People have a tendency now to think of it as a “Keaton and Arbuckle” movie (see, I even did it in my headline). But the two men are by no means co-stars in this film. The size of Keaton’s role is roughly equivalent to that of Chaplin in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, a film that similarly suffers today for being thought of as a “Chaplin movie”.

But Keaton’s role is small here. The movie belongs to its star, Arbuckle. He’s the butcher boy in a store . There’s no plot to speak of but lots of work related gags, crazy customers who enter etc. Arbuckle likes to flip his meat cleaver in the air so that it lands embedded in the woodblock.

Despite the vat’s worth of printers ink that has been expended on the subject, I’ve never considered Keaton’s turn in this film to be particularly auspicious. His work is competent, and remarkably assured and self-possessed for someone who’d never been on camera before, to be sure. But so much has been written about it. And I find myself distracted by the fact that none of it would never happen. It’s the famous “molasses in the hat” bit that bothers me. Molasses isn’t that sticky, certainly not sticky enough that it acts like superglue, rendering bonded objects immobile. So the bit comes under the head of a category I like to call “comedians trying to have a bad time.” Early silent comedians did this a lot, especially at Keystone, maybe 30% of the time. Struggling harder than the character logically would, falling down for no reason, then thrashing around, unable to get up, etc. Molasses is sticky, gross and inconvenient to have in your hat. It is not enchanted.

In my view, Al St. John is much more impressive in the film. The second act has Fatty going in drag so he can enroll in a girl’s school to get close to a female he’s interested in. At some point, St. John is harassing him, and Fatty flips him through the air, ass over teakettle. The work is totally St. John’s, and it’s an amazing little stunt. If you blink, you’ll miss it, but don’t miss it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #865: Lee Tung Foo

Posted in Asian, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lee Tung Foo (1875-1966). Born in California, Lee was a Chinese American singer in vaudeville from the mid 1890s through around 1919. Lee was formally trained, and apparently good at what he did, but naturally his gimmick, and the source of most his attention, was his ethnic identity. He didn’t do “yellow face” like many magicians, but he did make a big deal out of going “against type”, as in his Harry Lauder imitation:

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Vaudeville was already slowing down by the ’20s thanks to the competition of cinema. Lee opened a couple of popular Chinese restaurants in New York. Then about a decade later he started to emerge from retirement, with some small roles on Broadway and then Hollywood films. He had a decent part in the Warner Bros. short The Skull Murder Mystery (1932) and then was called back for another speaking part in The General Died at Dawn (1936). For the next quarter century he was relegated mostly to uncredited bit parts, as servants, laundrymen, witnesses and suspects in B pictures, visiting Asian dignitaries, and color in crowd scenes, although occasionally speaking parts would come his way. His last film was The Manchurian Candidate (1962). For lot’s more on Lee Tung Foo, check out this cool article here. 

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

Posted in Broadway, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on April 22, 2014 by travsd

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Huzzah! Today is the release date of the landmark new DVD release The Mishaps of Musty Suffer. 

“Musty Suffer” was a screen character developed by vaudeville comedian Harry Watson Jr. (go here for my earlier article on him). In 1916 and 1917 he made a series of shorts for Bronx-based producer George Kleine. They’ve essentially lain dormant at the Library of Congress ever since. Curators Ben Model and Steve Massa have done what amounts to a public service by exhuming these films and getting them before the public (with typically snappy, merry original scores by Model). And these films really don’t seem to have been played — the prints seem downright pristine.

While I’d read about Kleine many times (he was one of the founders of Kalem, and a member of Edison’s trust), these Musty Suffer comedies are the first films I’ve seen by his independent production company. By 1916, most of the film industry had moved to the Los Angeles area, so one of the interesting features of these films is seeing movies made this late at Eastern locations. The cast of actors is entirely different from ones we are accustomed to seeing in comedies from the era (normally you recognize at least somebody) so there is the added interest of seeing a talented pool of unfamiliar professionals at work.

Not to undersell Watson (!), who combines the strange, surreal sensibility of a Larry Semon or a Charlie Bowers with a certain stage-bound vaudeville approach we usually find in other big stage stars who tried pictures but couldn’t make the transition, like Weber and Fields and Eddie Foy. Watson is a CLOWN…there’s practically sawdust coming out of his pockets. Indeed, much of his mugging and face-pulling reminds me a great deal of Ford Sterling, another circus clown. Musty Suffer is usually a hobo, but one quite different from Chaplin’s. Musty’s skin and clothes are filthy, and the intertitles are written in a voice we can “hear” as a bum’s. By contrast, Chaplin got comedy by being against type, comically refined. These so-called “whirls” are lightweight things, mercifully short, averaging about 12 minutes…and very much like live action cartoons. In fact most of them having crazy special effects. The DVD collection includes:

GOING UPMusty thinks he has it made in the shade when his friend Dippy Mary lets him stay in the mansion where she works. But stuff happens. Falling plaster ruins his meal, and a brass band from the Deaf and Dumb Asylum spoils his sleep. Eventually he nods off and dreams of a beer bath and the attentions of a half dozen lovely ladies, before he somehow goes rolling out the window. 

THE LIGHTNING BELLHOP: Musty is hired as a hotel bellhop in a jerryrigged joint called the Outside Inn, with several features that may have inspired Arbuckle and Keaton, including a set of Venetian stairs, and a horse operated elevator. 

JUST IMAGINATION:  Musty prays for a job. When he finally gets one, it’s as a lab experiment by a pair of strange dudes who proceed to gaslight him, making his food and drink disappear before he can consume it, pantomiming things that aren’t there, and replacing a coffee pot with a live duck. In the end…of course, it was all a dream. What isn’t? 

BLOW YOUR HORN: Musty gets a job as a delivery boy, causing all manner of havoc. Asked to move some long rods in a home that’s being renovated, he cuts holes in the walls so he can take them through the door crossways. The climax is a circus bit, with Musty working at a construction sight with two “helpers”, who are just two dummies attached to his body. 

WHILE YOU WAITMusty takes a job at an employment agency which is peculiarly and conveniently accoutred with a number of costumes allowing us to see Watson as a policeman, a hillbilly, a maid (in drag) a butler, and a gardener. 

LOCAL SHOWERSMusty has a toothache and takes himself to a nightmarish dentist office, where we first the usual gag of a mallet-as-anesthesia….but then the highly usual addition of an indoor rainshower, and an exit through a series of chutes. Later he is dried over a flame on a spit, and then flies up the chimney. 

OUTS AND INS: Musty is a chef at an automat. His shenanigans involve chopping the hand off a man whose thieving arm is about eight feet long, and then poisoning another man for stealing coffee. 

SPLICED AND ICED: Musty courts and marries the girl he loves, an enormously fat woman, played by a man in drag. One hitched, the party is over and Musty becomes wifey’s slave. 

EXTRAS:

HOLD FAST: this is a fragment  containing Watson’s famous boxing routine from the Follies, with his old vaudeville partner George Bickel. A highly entertaining, elaborate comedy dance. 

CAPTURING CHICAGO: producer George Kleine made sure to have newsreel footage taken of Watson/Musty being feted during a motion picture exposition in Chicago in July 1916, and released it as this promo film.

For more information on the DVD, including how to purchase, go to http://www.mustysuffer.com/

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