Hall of Hams #83: Dolores Costello

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Dolores Costello (1903-1979). The daughter of stage and screen star Maurice Costello, she began acting in films as a child at age six along with her sister Helene. By 1926 she had dozens of performances under her belt, was elected one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, and appeared in The Sea Beast opposite John Barrymore, whom she was to marry in 1928. (She is thus the grandmother of Drew Barrymore). Costello retired from films shortly after the advent of sound, then returned following her divorce from Barrymore in 1935.

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Today, the acting role she is best known for is that of Isabelle in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). She retired for good in 1943.

Here she is in a clip from 1928’s The Glorious Betsy:

To learn more about early film history 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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For more on the history of show business consult 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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Laurel and Hardy in “Pack Up Your Troubles”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on September 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy feature Pack Up Your Troubles (1932). Their second feature for Hal Roach, it is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

To learn more about comedy film history 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 learn 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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On The Keystone Kops

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on September 16, 2014 by travsd

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The fact that the true “star” of any Mack Sennett film was always the ensemble is evidenced by his studio’s most famous legacy (after Charlie Chaplin), the Keystone Kops. The phrase has become proverbial for any bungling police department (or really any incompetent organization of any kind) but as time rolls along, one imagines fewer and fewer people know the source of the reference.

The Keystone Kops were a popular feature of Keystone comedy shorts chiefly during the years 1913 to 1915, although they certainly made appearances after those years. The Kops weren’t branded at the time per se, their name wasn’t included in any title, it didn’t appear in posters or marquees. They were simply part of the Keystone universe. People in trouble frequently need to call the police, and the characters in Keystone comedies were always in trouble.

As far as the audience was concerned, the Kops didn’t have names. They’re just the fat one, the tall one, the skinny one, the short one, and the one with the walrus moustache. Nearly all of the male Keystone comedians donned the uniform at some point: Ford Sterling, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Fred Mace, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Al St. John, and dozens more, including (it was not discovered until 2010) Charlie Chaplin.

The Kops have been much romanticized in retrospect, largely as the result of nostalgic compilation films produced in the 1950s and 60s, and tributes, such as Abbot and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955). In reality, they were usually only a small part of the comedies in which they appeared; just brief appearances at the climax of a film. You’ve undoubtedly seen the ritual in many an anthologized clip if not in one of the actual Keystone shorts. The desk sergeant takes a phone call. He summons the unit. They stand sloppily at attention (those who can stand). And then they run to their car, where they will zoom to the scene of distress and undoubtedly do more harm then good.

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Posterity remembers the Kops because they make a strong visual impression. In motion, they are similar to Warner Brothers’ Tasmanian Devil character – a sort of tornado-like blob with many heads, arms and legs, a dust cloud full of detritus moving as a single unit, bouncing off things, falling down. Not surprisingly, the Kops call to mind a troupe of circus clowns, the way they chaotically arrive in an open-aired automobile, and tumble out in a tangle. This herd-like quality of the Kops reminds me more than a little of the police chorus in Pirates of Penzance. Given the fact that Sennett was a serious music theatre lover one can’t help but wonder if the germ of something was planted in Sennett’s head by the popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. One notes with interest that there was a prominent revival of the show at the Casino Theatre in June 1912. But this is just a theory. Sennett himself mentioned the gendarmes in early French comedies as one of his inspirations.

I suspect that the guys who played the Kops would be very amused to learn that the uniform they wore has been permanently branded as a Keystone Kop costume. At the time, that was pretty much just how actual policemen dressed, with the bobby type helmet, and the thigh length overcoat with a row of brass buttons down front. Ironically, it was the Kops who ran this style of police uniform out of fashion. All of the sudden, it started to seem like law enforcement officers across the country were dressed like clowns. Once that image had been planted, there was nothing to do but change the uniform…

Now, the folks who created this video below have done us all a service. I was in a quandary about what clip to attach. As I said, there’s no real Keystone Kop movie. The Kops usually show up at the end of a film, and they’re only in a few shots or scenes. If I attached a typical comedy short in which they appeared, you’d have to sit through most of it before we got to them. However, these folks have done us all a solid by editing a bunch of their best scenes together into what is sort of the ultimate Keystone Kop sampler. And there’s even a helpful list of what films the excerpts are from at the end:

For much, much more about the Keystone Kops, please see my 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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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #84: Courageous Cat

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2014 by travsd

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This little show is from before my time, but I associate it with a particular time in my life. My high school years coincided with the early ’80s explosion of cable television, which meant (along with a hundred other things) that we finally had constant access to UHF channels 38 and 56 out of Boston, previously only available to us through the highly dodgy reception method of rabbit ears. Boston was the nearest decent tv market; Providence, which was closer, had but 3 or 4 local stations, all affiliates of the big 3 networks or PBS. By contrast, 38 and 56 were INDEPENDENT stations. That meant lots and lots of old movies, comedy shorts, sit-com reruns and above all CARTOONS. I cannot tell you the orgy of cartoon watching we did after school during my high school years. Kids in a candy store! If I recall correctly, 38 had the premium cartoons (your Warner Brothers, your MGM). And 56 had the weird, oddball ones.

And Courageous Cat was one of those (we’ll be writing about several of the others, no doubt). I had never heard of this show or its titular hero character prior to seeing them aired on TV.  And frankly I’ve never encountered them since. It’s been a revelation to learn of the show’s origin. Courageous Cat was a project dreamedup  by Batman creator Bob Kane late in his career. It has a slightly oddball, ironic tone, not unlike that to be found on Bullwinkle.

Courageous Cat is a superhero who lives in the Cat Cave with his sidekick, Minute Mouse. Like Batman, Courageous Cat has an arsenal and fleet of things that incorporate his name: a Cat Cave, a Catmobile, a Cat Plane, etc. Unlike Batman, Courageous Cat is a talking cat. The fact that his sidekick is a Mouse gives the team a kind of Tom and Jerry like quality. Hilariously, their main villain Chauncey “Flatface” Frog talks just like Edward G. Robinson. (Courageous and Minute both have squeaky high voices, more like Dennis Day). There is a really cool sort of be bop tone to it, with great jazz music on the sound track. The Courageous Cat cartoons were produced around 1960, though they feel a decade or two older in some ways. Most of them are short, only about five minutes long, making them perfect for the Youtube age.

Courageous Cat and the Case of the Cat Cave Treasure is a good demonstration of its weird vibe.

Burlesque Benefit for Planned Parenthood

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2014 by travsd

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Blondie on the Radio (No, Not Debbie Harry!)

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Radio, Women with tags , , , , , on September 15, 2014 by travsd

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As we noted earlier, today is Penny Singleton’s birthday (for more on this star of stage, screen and radio go here). Singleton was best known for her role as the title character in the screen and radio adaptations of Chic Young’s comic strip Blondie. The films were produced between 1938 and 1950; the radio show almost as long, 1939-1950. The radio version ran on CBS through 1944, then switched to NBC through 1949, then ran on ABC for its last year. Her co-star on both was Arthur Lake as her whiny, lazy, dim-witted husband Dagwood Bumstead. Singleton left the show in ’45 and was replaced by Patricia Lake (Arthur Lake’s wife).

For more on 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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Fay Wray: Twas Beauty Killed the Beast

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , on September 15, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fay Wray (1907-2003).

For decades she was unfairly known for only one role, that of Ann Darrow, the reluctant love interest of the title character in King Kong (1933). This was because it was the only one of her over 100 screen roles that was regularly shown in the late twentieth century. Since then thankfully access to a great many of her other films allows for a much more thorough assessment. (I caught her in Frank Capra’s 1931 Dirigible on TCM a few weeks back – -excellent!)

A native of Canada, she had been in films for a decade by the time of King Kong. She started out in bit parts in Hal Roach silent comedies such as Charley Chase’s What Price Goofy? (1925) and Should Sailors Marry? (1925) with Clyde Cook and Oliver Hardy. In 1926, the beautiful starlet was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. While she starred in films of all genres, for a couple of years she was closely associated with horror and was dubbed a “Scream Queen”. In addition to King Kong, her scary movies included Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932) and The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum (both 1933). She continued to act on film and television for another quarter century, and then re-emerged from retirement one last time in 1980 to act in Gideon’s Trumpet with Henry Fonda, Jose Ferrer and John Houseman.  She reportedly turned on offer from Peter Jackson to appear in a came in his 2005 King Kong remake (she was still alive when it was in production).

Now here’s one of my Gothic favorites, containing a Fay Wray performance that ought to be better known: The Most Dangerous Game.  Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) is one of the best villains in all of cinema.

To learn more about early film history 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 learn 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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