Douglas Fairbanks in “His Majesty, The American”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks feature His Majesty, the American (1919).

His Majesty, the American was the first film ever to be released by United Artists. It opens with an announcement as to this fact…Doug jumps through the words and gives us his slangy hopes that we’ll like it.

No clips are available online so here’s my encapsulation of its events:

The first act is the best and funniest part of the film. Doug is a rich young man, the source of whose wealth is a mystery. He’s just grown up being taken care of by servants and handlers. Meanwhile he’s become a thrill hound and a sort of amateur adjunct to the police and fire departments. His house is full of memorabilia and equipment. When he gets word of a fire (he has an alarm bell in his house) he goes down a fire pole which leads to his garage, races to a spectacular tenement fire, swings over to the burning building on rope from a building across the street and rescues a family one by one — including a kitten.  Then he gets a ticker tape message from the police department and races to a crime scene where a wanted man is hiding out. Cops raid the house, but figure to have lost the man again, but Doug spots him (disguised in drag) and catches the guy.

Then, bad news: a new official at city hall neuters the police and fire departments. The police are now all sissies and the firemen all fat. There is nothing going on (seems like there ought to be MORE going on, with no one to catch crooks or put out fires, but no matter). Doug leaves town looking for a little excitement. He heads to Mexico, hoping to get in on a little Pancho Villa action. On the way there, he gets off the train at a Texas town that sounds lively (he literally hears explosions.) He learns too late that he’s only been hearing Fourth of July firecrackers.

He then heads into Mexico on foot, with donkeys. A long sequence in the desert. It is so hot, he is able to light a cigarette on a rock. Finally, he makes it to the town he was looking for—it’s called “Murdero”. Unfortunately all the bad guys are dead. Then it looks like some action is on the way.  Pancho Villa’s men are coming. A very impressive spectacle, scores of guys on horseback ride through town….and keep going! They wont be back for a year. Doug is disappointed.

Then he gets a telegram. He is summoned to the mythical European country of Allaine. He arrives and gets drawn into intrigues. The people are restless. The king’s plan is to give them a bill of rights and political say. But his unscrupulous cabinet minister insists that the way to quiet them is through an advantageous marriage. There follows all sorts of business with notes and spies. It finally turns out (of course) that Doug is the hereditary prince of this country. He arrives just in time to stop the king from signing a document he is being coerced into signing. There’ll be a coronation. He announces from now on American principles “By the People, For the People” etc.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too! Fairbanks’ early films often walk this very line, mixing elements of fairy tale and aristocracy with Americanism. Audiences embraced it despite all the inherent contradictions. Come to think of it, the American audience remains confused about that same philosophical oxymoron to this day.

To learn more about early 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 find out more 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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Buster Keaton in “One Week”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Buster Keaton short One Week (1920), co-directed by Eddie Cline.

This film (the first of Keaton’s solo shorts to get a public release) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy 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 find out more 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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Adrien Brody as Houdini Premieres Tonight

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Illusionists, PLUGS, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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We are very excited here at Travalanche. Part one of the two-part Houdini special starring Adrien Brody in the title role airs tonight at 9pm Eastern.

Houdini is one of our favorite repeat topics here on Travalanche, cultural phenomenon that he was. If you’re feeling like some background, here are some of the posts that we’ve done on Houdini over the last few years, Just click on the title for the link to the post.

* Stars of Vaudeville #135: Houdini (full biographical essay) 

* Harry Houdini, Movie Star

* Houdini Art & Magic (Exhibition Review) 

* Houdini’s Rope Escape

* Harry Kellar Meets Houdini

* Houdini’s Grave

* On the Tony Curtis Bio-Pic

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To find out more 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 #875: Glenn Anders

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Glenn Anders (1889-1981). If you’re like me, he’s one of your favorite things about Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947) . Then comes the inevitable question: Who IS that guy?

It turns out he got his start in vaudeville on the Orpheum Circuit in the nineteen-teens. I haven’t had any luck in learning what his act was, although I do note that his first film role was Leon, the Acrobat in Sally of the Sawdust (1925). But Anders had also gone to drama school prior to the vaudeville work, so he may simply have been acting in dramatic sketches.

Anders only made a handful of films in his long (40+ year) career; the bulk of his career was spent in the theatre. He had prominent roles in over three dozen Broadway plays, including the original productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928-1929) and Dynamo (1920), Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (1930), and Laurence Stallings’ adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1930). He retired after the late 1950s.

To find out more 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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Molly Ryan Salute to Mae West Tonight

Posted in Music, PLUGS, Singers, Uncategorized, Women with tags , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Al G. Barnes

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Impresarios with tags , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Al G. Barnes (Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse, 1862-1931).

Originally from an Ontario Canada farm, legend has it that Barnes started his first show in 1895 with just a pony, a phonograph and a stereopticon. In 1900 he married Dolly Barlow, the sale of whose farm allowed Barnes to purchase several road shows which would form the Al G. Barnes Circus. It rapidly grew to one of the largest tented shows in North America, especially well known for its animals. The circus claimed that they had more animals than all the other shows combined. One act in the show employed 180 horses. The famous lady lion tamer Mabel Stark was one of his stars. He also kept several elephants, at least two of which, Black Diamond and Tusko ran amok on more than one occasion, causing much property damage and loss of life.

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In 1929, Barnes sold the show to the American Circus Corporation, which also owned the John Robinson Circus, Sells-Floto, Hagenbeck-Wallace and the Sparks Circus. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey bought out the American Circus Corporation a few months later. They continued to present the show in various incarnations through 1938.

To find out more about  the history of the variety artsconsult 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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I Married a Witch

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , on August 31, 2014 by travsd

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Today is Frederic March’s birthday. Rather than crow about his dozens of well-known and award winning roles today (including one of my personal favorites since childhood, the seminal Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), I thought I would give a shout out to a picture I feel has been unjustly neglected, and one that is relevant to the journey that led to Chain of FoolsAs I’ll discuss in more length in an upcoming post René Clair has become a favorite director of mine: the mixture in his work of comedy, fantasy and aesthetic beauty appeal to me particularly. I Married a Witch (1942) is a screwball comedy made by Clair during his brief Hollywood period, when he was in voluntary exile from the Nazi-affiliated French State.

Many regard the film as a likely inspiration for the tv sit com Bewitched. Veronica Lake plays a witch whose soul has been trapped since the Salem witch trials in the roots of a tree, along with that of her rascally father (Cecil Kellaway). In the present day (1942), lightning splits the tree in two, freeing their spirits to wreak havoc. In particular, Lake wants revenge on the descendant of the man who condemned them to the stake (March). He is a politician running for office; the irresistible Robert Benchley plays his friend and advisor, making full use of his native Massachusetts accent. Lake seduces March through a lengthy process whereby she gets him to rescue her from a burning building. By the end, she has stolen him from his fiance, and they are married. The hitch of course is that she inevitably falls in love with him herself, and it is no longer about revenge, but chemistry.

NOW: I’ll confess, I expected a movie that features Veronica Lake as an unearthly seductress to be a good deal steamier, and the publicity photos for the film seemed to promise as much. But it never delivers anything, for example, quite like this image, and I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, this still being the land of the Puritans in the mid 20th century:

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But there are plenty of laughs and magical moments, helped along no doubt by the fact that Preston Sturges was one of the producers, and Robert Pirosh (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) and Marc Connelly (numerous collaborations with George S. Kaufman) were among the screenwriters. And of course, Clair directed.

As for the birthday boy? March was a great dramatic actor but comedy really wasn’t his bailiwick. Someone like Joel McCrea or Cary Grant would have fared better. But still this movie promises to be a new Halloween classic around the house of S.D.

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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