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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Century of Slapstick #47: His New Profession

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on August 31, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy short His New Profession.

This film is quite distinct from His New Job, Chaplin’s first film for Essanay a few months later. In this, Charlie is busy minding his own business in the park when a young Charley Chase (then still billed as Charles Parrott), runs up and hires to be a home health aid to his invalid uncle (Jess Dandy) so that he can go cavorting around with his girlfriend (Peggy Page). The job consists mostly of pushing the old crank around in his wheelchair, presaging some of the comic fun he will later have with Eric Campbell in The Cure. 

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Naturally, they wind up on a pier. There they encounter a blind man. When both the unfortunates are napping, Charlie steals the coins out of the blind man’s tin cup, so that he can go drinking at the bar, surely one of his lowest onscreen acts. Eventually of course the story winds up with all of them on the pier, and lots of harrowing fisticuffs.

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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Buster Keaton in “Doughboys”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on August 30, 2014 by travsd

DOUGHBOYS

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Buster Keaton talkie Doughboys (1930), directed by Eddie Sedgwick. 

Doughboys is Keaton’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

This number is among the reasons, Doughboys is my favorite Keaton talkie for MGM:

To learn more about slapstick 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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Hall of Hams #81: George Macready

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , on August 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actor George Macready (1899-1973).

While a relatively minor stage and screen star, I have two special reasons (besides his talent) for including him. One is that he claimed a (plausible) lineage from William Macready. And even if it ain’t true, he’s a smart cookie for encouraging that notion. Secondly, he’s a fellow Rhode Islander, born and raised in Providence, and was a graduate of Brown. And, what the hell, here’s a third – – he was close friends with Vincent Price, and co-owned an art gallery with him in the 1960s.

His stage career began in the 1920s. He was closely associated with the director Richard Boleslawski, and played numerous classical roles. Both Macready and Price were in the 1935-37 production of Victoria Regis starring Helen Hayes; this is probably where the two met and became chums.

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Macready didn’t break into films until the mid-1940s. A prominent scar on his face limited how he could be cast. Though it was from a car accident, it could be implied that it was from fencing or some other tawdry struggle. This combined with his fine voice and diction, meant that he was almost invariably cast as classy villains. The performance I always associate him with is as the heartless general in Stanley Kubrick’s Path’s of Glory (1957). He’s also in the noir classic Gilda (1946), the all-star 1953 Julius Caesar, the western Vera Cruz (1954), the sick-o murder story A Kiss Before Dying (1956), Roy Del Ruth’s ridiculous horror movie The Alligator People (1959), nuclear thriller Seven Days in May (1964) and the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965). Above all, one tends to associate him with television. He was a regular on Peyton Place, and a guest star on practically every series of the 50s and 60s you can name, especially westerns: Bonanza, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Have Gun – Will Travel, etc etc etc. One of Macready’s last roles was as Secretary of State Cordell Hull in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

To find out more about  show business historyconsult 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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Ziegfeld Summer Soiree Tomorrow

Posted in PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , on August 29, 2014 by travsd

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The Lady Had a Certain KULPability

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late great character actress Nancy Kulp (1921-1991). Best known of course for her role as “Miss Jane” Hathaway, the love-starved spinster secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), she played many such roles over the years, often as guest shots in situation comedies and dramas. Flat-chested, rail-thin, prim and proper, she seemed more than vaguely English, despite the fact that she hailed from Pennsylvania, and moved to Florida as a teenager. Originally trained as a journalist, in the early 1950s she went to work in the publicity department of a movie studio, where she was discovered by George Cukor, who encouraged her to try acting. She had many small parts in movies over the years (including many for Walt Disney), but it was her role as a bird-watching neighbor on The Bob Cummings Show starting in 1955 that forever cemented her profile as a highly eccentric — but very recognizable type.

"Be so good as to go, Jethro!"

“Be so good as to go, Jethro!”

As time went on, the iconography of the character she played gathered new shades of meaning. Just the other night, the Mad Marchioness and myself caught her in an episode of Sanford and Son. She had a recurring role on that show from 1975 to 1976  as the very whitest of white ladies, always to entrance and exit applause. People loved Nancy Kulp to death, much as they loved Tony Randall. I confess to being among the idolaters. She had so much class, and she didn’t apologize for it. She was absolutely willing to be 100% herself, to plunge right into the most vulnerable, humiliating sort of behavior for the sake of our amusement. Without debasing herself, mind you — just being human, but in the most courageous way. There is a ton to learn from the example of this actress.

And yes, she was of the L persuasion, research bears it out. I never make assumptions, as many seem to think it’s OK to do: “Of COURSE she’s this or that!” Of course, nothing. Kulp divorced her husband of ten years in 1961, thereafter secretly practicing her conviction that “Sometimes birds of a feather flock together.”, which is all she was willing to say on the subject. I guess there was more to that bird watching than meets the eye!

Here is a really nice clip of her The Bob Cummings Show a.k.a. Love That Bob. Genius!

To learn more about 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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Buster Keaton in “The Frozen North”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on August 28, 2014 by travsd
Keaton gets off the subway at the "Frozen North" stop

Keaton gets off the subway at the “Frozen North” stop

Today is the anniversary of the release date of Buster Keaton’s short The Frozen North (1922), co-directed by Eddie Cline.

The film is a parody of westerns, specifically those of William S. Hart – Keaton tweaks Hart in several specific moments in the film. SPOILER: this is one of the many silent film comedies where the narrative turns out to have been a dream, presaging Keaton’s own Sherlock Jr. in that respect. Thus Keaton’s cruelty in the film, which the first time I watched it seemed quite unforgiveable. For example, his wife gets knocked unconscious and he uses it as an opportunity to go steal another man’s wife.  Lots of clever gags.  An enormous igloo for a house. Guitars for snow shoes. Keaton disarms everyone in casino so he can rob them…by sticking a gun-toting movie villain poster (actually, Hart) outside the window.

To learn more about silent and slapstick 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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