Gotham Holiday Swing

Posted in HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Music with tags , , , on December 19, 2014 by travsd

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A New Book About Coney Island Theatres!

Posted in AMUSEMENTS, BOOKS & AUTHORS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd

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Thanks Tricia Vita and Jim Moore for tipping me off to this great new book about the theatres of Coney Island. I’ve long known about the work of Cezar Del Valle – he is THE go-to guy for Brooklyn theatre history. I’ve read his work and we’ve corresponded throughout the years but we’ve never met, so I was delighted to get the chance yesterday to attend his talk at 440 Gallery which is just a couple of blocks from my house. His illustrated slide show hit some of the high points of his fascinating new book, Brooklyn Theatre Index, Volume III: Coney Island, Including Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach. 

In which a different kind of history is made

In which a different kind of history is made

Del Valle is an extremely entertaining presenter. Too many historians have a tin ear for what’s interesting. Absolutely the opposite with Del Valle. I am posting this now because I KNOW that so many readers will either want this new book for themselves, or know someone who would like it for a holiday gift. It’s actually volume three of his series on Brooklyn theatres, but let’s face it, Coney Island’s history is special. It may not be well known but there were tons of theatre-theatres out in the amusement district back in the day: not just sideshows and restaurant floor shows and the like but also vaudeville and burlesque houses, cinemas and plain old playhouses. Scores of them. Did you know that Joe Franklin ran his own nostalgia cinema out there? Harpo Marx made his vaudeville debut? Cary Grant was a stilt-walker? And a hundred things like that.

Anything I could add to Tricia Vita’s glowing write-up would be superfluous, so here’s hers: http://amusingthezillion.com/2014/11/22/autumn-reading-the-brooklyn-theatre-index-of-coney-island-brighton-beach-manhattan-beach/

And like me, you’ll inevitably want to get columes I & II of Del Valle’s Brooklyn Theatre Index as well. Get it here: http://www.theatretalks.com/brooklyn-theatre-index.html

“A Christmas Carol” at the Merchant’s House Museum

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Indie Theatre with tags , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd

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Long time readers know of my ambivalence to the shopworn vehicle A Christmas Carol, expressed here a year ago in this epic post: http://travsd.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/too-many-christmas-carols/

Of course it’s a perfect work of populist art, by one of my favorite writers…it’s just that, after a while it can seem like a dead sleigh horse…a series of dead sleigh horses one keeps encountering in the snowy street.

That said, live theatre ain’t film. Theatre offers much that film can’t no matter what’s up on screen. For those things on the screen are far away. They are not HERE. Whereas, at the 181 year old Merchant’s House Museum you step into an environment, really the ONLY environment for an evening of animated Victorian storytelling by a first rate actor. The cozy old townhouse is decked out for the holidays now, with holly and ivy, pine wreathes and garlands and poinsettias, and the museum has an adorable exhibition up made to resemble a festive repast of the 19th century. This is the setting for Kevin Jones’ solo version of A Christmas Carol, a brisk hour in which the spellbinding actor transports us to Dickens’ London, inhabiting at least a couple of dozen diverse characters in the bargain.

If you’re feeling grumpy (it’s been known to happen to New Yorkers at Christmas), this would be a good way to swing out of it. If you’re feeling jolly, it will make you jollier. As we used to say at theatre school, Jones has an excellent “apparatus” — a terrifically resonant voice, and a practiced skill at deploying it. Those would avail nothing if he didn’t know how to entertain, but he does. The true measure: there were two little boys in the audience, each under ten. And Jones held their attention the entire time. With live solo theatre in an old house. In the age of electronic game addiction, this is the true Christmas miracle.

Kevin Jones’ A Christmas Carol is playing at the Old Merchant’s House through December 28. Info and tickets are here: http://merchantshouse.org/christmascarol2014/

Charlie Chaplin in “A Day’s Pleasure”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin short A Days’s Pleasure (1919).

Critics have always panned this uncharacteristic little film; I find it interesting for that reason. It is the rare sight of Chaplin at a relatively late date imitating competitors and attempting something far less artistically ambitious than his usual fare.

Desperate to finish out his contract with First National so that he could begin making films with his own company, United Artists, Chaplin dashed off A Day’s Pleasure. The movie is easily his least characteristic since the Keystone days. Still smarting from critical and audience indifference to his previous picture Sunnyside, in A Day’s Pleasure he seems to chuck it in and say “give the people what they want” and that amounts to a formula much more redolent of the films of Harold Lloyd, whose popularity was exploding at that time. Thus, we see the Little Fellow in circumstances in which he seems out of place, a world something more like our own. The plot (if you can call it that) is among his simplest. Charlie is a dad, taking his wife and kiddies on a weekend outing. The middle of the picture is familiar Chaplin fodder: travails on an excursion boat, with echoes of Shanghaied and The Immigrant. But the remaining two thirds are all about car trouble, territory that by now Lloyd had already staked out as his own. More striking than this though is Chaplin’s attempt to harmonize the Little Fellow with the prevailing social order. No longer the outsider, in this picture the Little Fellow has a knockout for a wife (Edna Purviance), has managed to hang on to her for several years (the oldest child is perhaps 8 or 9), and is comfortable enough financially to take them all on a little day trip. A far cry from a Tramp.

I think this rare glimpse of Chaplin just “going through the motions” to be highly valuable. It is a reminder that at bottom he was still just a comedian working within a commercial industry. We need such reminders for contrast, in order to truly appreciate the heights he was able to achieve within those parameters. Also, there’s plenty of laughs in this film, just you watch!

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

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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Larry Semon in “The Perfect Clown”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Larry Semon feature length comedy The Perfect Clown (1925).

The plot concerns a young clerk who is charged with the task of delivering $10,000 to the bank to be deposited. Finding the bank closed, he is placed in the nerve-wracking predicament of hanging onto the money overnight. This is complicated by the fact that he can’t go home; ironically, he doesn’t have the back rent to give his landlady. He winds up spending the night in a spooky barn during a thunder storm: there’s any good comedian’s third act right there. The Perfect Clown privileges gags over character, but we do keep to a single plot with a minimum of digression, which is more than can be said for many of Semons shorts. Directed by frequent Harold Lloyd collaborator Fred Newmeyer, the film also features usual Semon stock company members such as Dorothy Dwan, Oliver Hardy, Frank Alexander and Spencer Bell.

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tonight on TCM: A Dickens Double Header

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , on December 14, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight starting at 8pm Eastern, Turner Classic Movies will be showing a perfect pairing of what remain two of the best cinematic Dickens’ adaptations to date.

David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations (starting at 8) could lay a claim to being the most faithful adaptation of any novel ever to the screen (let alone any Dickens novel), with John Mills as the grown Pip and Alec Guinness as his lifelong friend Herbert Pocket. The images and moods and moments Lean establishes are indelible.

But more to the moment is the 10pm show, David O. Selznick’s all-star 1935 Hollywood production of David Copperfield, best remembered today for W.C. Fields’ magical turn as Micawber, his own “legit” role, and a performance he knocked out of the park. One never regrets any Fields performance, but his turn in this film does make you lament performances that MIGHT have been, such as Fields as Captain Any in Show Boat (a part originally devised for him), Fields as Don Quixote (which was being developed at one time), Fields as the Wizard of Oz (which came close to happening, though one hardly regrets Frank Morgan ended up with the part), Fields as Falstaff, Fields as the Duke in Huckleberry Finn. Oh the might have beens. But the man was in bad health and aging in the talkie era. The window was small, and like I said we must be grateful for what we have.

Directed by George Cukor, the film’s cast is almost unbelievable in the proliferation of faces nearly as welcome as Fields': Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, Edna Mae Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Una O’Connor, Maureen O’Sullivan et al. Oddly, one of the more minor stars in the picture is the man who plays the adult David, Frank Lawton. In fact the film is a bit of too much…trying to cram in all the events of a fairly epic tale, it zips along from plot point to plot point like a speed date on real speed. It’s not a masterpiece on par with Great Expectations but it packs plenty of magic nonetheless.

Laurel and Hardy in “Babes in Toyland” or “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy holiday classic Babes in Toyland a.k.a March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934). I’d never heard of this film until they began to show it on cable television in the 1980s. It rapidly became my favorite holiday film, for it is every bit as bizarre and dark as it is charming and festive.

For some reason Hal Roach liked to experiment with starring Laurel and Hardy in operas and operettas (he’d done the same with The Bohemian Girl and Fra Diavolo). Here of course, the team adapted the popular 1903 show by Victor Herbert. Much is changed from the stage version however. The film is set in a land populated by all the characters from nursery rhymes and other children’s literature (Stan and Babe are versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, two toymakers who live in the Old Woman’s Shoe). The thing is very stage bound — they seem to have built two sets (the storybook village, and the hellish land of the bogeymen) on a couple of sound stages and shot the whole thing in a heartbeat. Much more enjoyable than the conventional plot about young lovers and a rapacious landlord/suitor are the film’s memorable details: a live monkey in a costume inexplicably dressed as Mickey Mouse; three midgets as the Three Little Pigs; the army of hairy little bogeymen; the melodrama villain Silas Barnaby, made up to look like the Crooked Man from the nursery rhyme; and the relentlessly marching wooden soldiers who save the day in the end, through Stan and Ollie’s quick thinking.  The whole thing is both sweet and unsettling and I can never get enough of it.

It’s hard nowadays to find a version that isn’t colorized, but here’s the trailer:

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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