Dr. Sketchy’s Returns Tomorrow: with Sammy Tramp!

Posted in Burlesk, Drag and/or LGBT, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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100 Directors Who Made Vastly Better Comedies Than Harold Ramis

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History) with tags , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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In No Particular Order: 

1. Charlie Chaplin

2. Buster Keaton

3. Leo McCarey

4. Preston Sturges

5. Jules White

6. George Stevens

7. Mack Sennett

8. Hal Roach

9. Ernst Lubitsch

10. Jerry Lewis

11. Robert Townsend

12. Blake Edwards

13. Norman Taurog

14. The Coen Brothers

15. Wes Anderson

16. Tim Burton

17. Keenan Ivory Wayans

18. Mel Brooks

19. Gene Wilder

20. Woody Allen

21. Carl Reiner

22. Eddie Sedgwick

23. Eddie Cline

24. Gregory La Cava

25. Paul Parrott

27. Norman McLeod

28. Sidney Lanfield

29. John Hughes

30. Jacques Tati

31. Max Linder

32. Roscoe Arbuckle

33. Frank Tashlin

34. Howard Hawks

35. Wesley Ruggles

36. Eddie Sutherland

37. John Landis

38. Roy Del Ruth

39. Harry Edwards

40. Del Lord

41. George Nichols

42. Clyde Bruckman

43. Sam Taylor

44. Peter Bogdonovich

45. Dell Henderson

46. Rene Clair

47. William A. Seiter

48. Harry Langdon

49. Charley Chase

50. Frank Capra

51. Mal St. Clair

52. Henry Lehrman

53. Tony Richardson

54. Stanley Kubrick

55. Chuck Reisner

56. Victor Fleming

57. Alf Goulding

58. William Beaudine

59. George Marshall

60. Charlie Bowers

61. Al Christie

62. Mabel Normand

63. Jim Jarmusch

64. Judd Apatow

65. Hal Ashby

66. The Farrelly brothers

67. Steve Martin

68. Bobcat Goldthwait

69. Noah Baumbach

70. Whit Stillman

71. Mike Nichols

72. Elaine May

73. Albert Brooks

74. Rickey Gervais

75. Christopher Guest

76. Charlie Kaufman

77. Mike Judge

78. Jake Kasdan

79. Ernie Fosselius

80. Martin Scorsese

81. Spike Lee

82. Howard Morris

83. Eddie Buzzell

84. Jean Yarbrough

85. George Cukor

86. Billy Wilder

87. Garson Kanin

88. Robert Altman

89. Hy Averback

90. Paul Mazursky

91. Fred C. Newmeyer

92. William Asher

93. Charles Lane

94. Ben Stiller

95. Hal Needham

96. S. Sylvan Simon

97. Dan Aykroyd

98. D.W. Griffith

99. John Emerson

100. Steven Spielberg (No, that’s just cruel, we’ll make it 99)

For more on what you don’t know about comedy see my 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow on TCM: Chaplin’s First Talkie

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Tomorrow at 6:00 am (EST) Turner Classic Movies will be showing one of my favorite films, Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie The Great Dictator (1940). 

By the 1930s there was no avoiding the fact that another buffoon with a toothbrush mustache was vying with Chaplin for the title of most famous man in the world. Chaplin despised Adolf Hitler. That the German tyrant  had spoiled Chaplin’s distinctive brand and banned his films was the least of it. Hitler was against everything Chaplin stood for: humanism, tolerance, sympathy, freedom. He was convincing large numbers of people to hate Jews; the woman Chaplin loved at the time (Paulette Goddard) was half Jewish.

For years Chaplin had been threatening to make a picture about Napoleon, originally with Edna Purviance as his Josephine. It was an easy matter for him to transfer the Napoleon ideas that had been gestating and adapt them into a burlesque on Hitler.  Since his trademark mustache had been stolen, the proposed film would also be his sad farewell to his famous screen character. In this film, The Little Fellow (a barber here) is a Jewish war hero who bears an uncanny resemblance to the national dictator Adenoid Hynkel. In the end, he will have the opportunity to briefly replace him and make his plea for common sense and human decency.

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This was a momentous theme, important enough for Chaplin to drop his decade-long rear guard action against dialogue. This would be a much larger job for him than it had been for any other silent comedian who had gone into talkies. Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, all of them were highly collaborative artists. When it came time to talk, writers would write their screenplays, which they would undoubtedly tweak, but that was the extent of it. But, aside from the minor contribution here and there, Chaplin had always been the sole creator of his works. This meant that in addition to the many hats he already wore, he would now have to reinvent himself as a screenwriter in the modern sense: somebody who sits down at a typewriter and writes a playscript, spoken dialogue and all, for the screen. It seems to me he made an amazing adjustment. While Chaplin did hire helpers to assist with early drafts, to anyone who is familiar with his voice there is no doubt that most of what winds up on screen is Chaplin’s.

The thing that most surprises about The Great Dictator is, despite its weighty purpose, how out-and-out funny it is. It may be his most Mack Sennett-like film since his Essanay days, frankly comical in an accessible earthy way. All of the fun with names (Tomainia, Bacteria, Garbitsch, Herring, Napoloni) is straight out of the Ben Turpin playbook. And Chaplin has been careful to balance the introduction of spoken dialogue with copious amounts of slapstick and physical business throughout the entire movie. The World War I flashback that opens the film (evoking Shoulder Arms) showcases the Little Fellow’s misadventures with a ridiculously large gun named Big Bertha, followed by a bit where he and an injured pilot (Reginald Gardiner) fly their bi-plane upside down without noticing it.  Later when we get to the present, there is a great scene where the girl, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, in her second and last Chaplin role), is hitting storm troopers on the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally strikes Charlie, he goes classically goofy with concussion and does a little dance up and down the sidewalk as though soused. Chaplin is amazingly agile in this film. At one point, the fifty-ish comedian leaps into the air and dives head first into a barrel as though he were half his age. But now that it is 1940 and he has sound with which to play, he experiments with the ways in which movement and sound can interplay. The barber shaves a customer in time to a Hungarian dance being played on the radio. A microphone withers when Hynkel yells into it (another Sennett-style gag). And then there is Hynkel’s famously beautiful dance with the globe to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of Chaplin’s most famous scenes.

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But he also saw that there were ways to make similarly symbolic points without losing the humor, as when Hynkel and Napoloni jack up the adjacent barber chairs in which they’re seated to the height of the ceiling so that they can be taller than one another. Another bit, both funny and dark, reminds me of the tone of The Gold Rush. In a grim contest to see who will go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel, the Little Fellow and the men from the ghetto are eating cupcakes, one of which has a gold coin in it. Not particularly heroic, the barber weighs each plate that comes his way. Satisfied, he begins to eat, only to have the guy sitting next to him switch cupcakes on him. No matter which cupcake he eats, the Little Fellow seems to get the gold coin.

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A lot of the verbal humor is broad, as well. Much of it is lifted from vaudeville: Jack Oakie’s dialect as Napoloni is straight from the Chico Marx school of Italian impersonation, and Chaplin’s own parodies of Hitler’s speeches is a piece of “Dutch” comedy worthy of Weber and Fields, Baron Munchausen, or for that matter Ford Sterling. The doubletalk business hearkens back to his first onscreen spoken words, the nonsense song from Modern Times.

Some of the ethnic lampoon backfires somewhat. With no awareness of the Holocaust then in progress, Chaplin’s gentle Jewish stereotypes, hearkening back to his own “Sam Cohen” routine on the London burlesque stage, seem out of place and distasteful to say the least. But how could he have known? Conversely, the storm troopers are WAY too gently represented. Here they are painted as mere buffoons and lummoxes in the Keystone Kops mold. It rings uncomfortable and false even in the context of 1940, as the thugs, just like the real ones of the time, are painting “Jew” on storefronts, smashing windows, and beating up women and old men in the street. With hindsight it’s easy to see that the best strategy would have been to treat these characters with no humor whatsoever. There is a way to integrate such serious villains into a comedy without losing the overall humor. Chaplin had done it in films like The Kid and The Gold Rush. It seems like he flinched here.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that America had not yet joined the war, and a large part of the public was either pro-Germany or pro-neutrality, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest grossing film to date. This no doubt was in part due to curiosity on the part of the public to hear Chaplin speak.  Nowadays, I would venture to say the film is less well-known than his best-known silents The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. However, it seems to be picking up steam all the time thanks to frequent television airplay and in the long run it may come to match them in popularity.

For more on comedy film history 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz 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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Francis Leon: Minstrelsy’s Greatest Female Impersonator

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Francis Leon (Francis Patrick Glassey, b. 1844). Eventually billed simply as “Leon” or “The Only Leon”, he was the foremost female impersonator in blackface minstrelsy.

Let it be known that the category of the “wench” was universally popular in minstrel shows — every comedian did drag, just like every comedian did blackface in the 19th century: if you didn’t, what good were you? But Leon was different from those lowbrow clowns. He was a hardcore female impersonator in the modern, vaudeville sense. He upped the ante, by being as convincing as humanly possible in his portrayals. It was no longer necessarily about comedy, it was about beauty and histrionic ability.

He went into show biz in his early teens. Because of his training as a boy soprano in church choirs he was able to mimic prima donnas, making him a novelty in minstrel shows. Rather than laying on burnt cork, he often portrayed “high yellow” dames, i.e. mulattoes. It’s said that there were as many as 300 dresses in his wardrobe, some of them costing as much as $400 — and astounding sum in those days. He presented refined opera and ballet and was renowned for the sensitivity accuracy of his representation of the fairer sex. In 1864 he formed his own troupe. Within a decade every minstrel company in the country had a Leon impersonator. The last historical reference to him is in San Francisco in 1883. Where and when he died remains unknown.

To learn more about the history of variety theatreconsult 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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Force Majeure This Sunday!

Posted in PLUGS, Contemporary Variety, BROOKLYN with tags , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Stars of Slapstick #202: Jobyna Ralston

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tennessee-born silent film actress and comedian Jobyna Ralston (1899-1967).

Ralston was named after stage and screen actress Jobyna Howland by her mother, a portrait photographer who apparently had dreams for her child even before she was born. Fortunately for her mother’s aspirations, the younger Jobyna proved to possess great talent, and blossomed into a gorgeous young woman — considerable attributes for a stage and screen star.

After a number of childhood theatrical experiences, Ralston broke into films in 1919, supporting Bobby Burns in independent shorts made in Florida. Her first notable credit was in the Marx Brothers’ legendary silent feature Humor Risk (1921), sadly now lost. She continued supporting Bobby Burns and Billy Quirk in comedies until her first break in 1922, when she was hired by Hal Roach , who frequently paired her in comedies with James Parrott (sometimes billed as Paul). That year, Max Linder cast her opposite him in The Three Must-Get-Theirs, her first feature. In 1923 she was elected to the WAMPAS Baby Stars.

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Then, the credit she is best known for today: she stepped into the shoes previously filled by Bebe Daniels and Mildred Davis to become Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for his features from 1923 to 1927: Why Worry?, Girl Shy, Hot Water, The Freshman, For Heaven’s Sake and The Kid BrotherNext, she got to co-star with Eddie Cantor in his second silent feature Special Delivery (1927).

The next phase of her career is intriguing. Through the rest of the silent era, Ralston breaks out of comedy and acts in a wide range of features, sometimes even receiving star billing. She had a major role in William Wellman’s blockbuster Wings (1927), and is in a number of other westerns, adventures, dramas and comedies. (1927′s  A Racing Romeo cast her opposite football star Red Grange!). She only made three talkies; critics disparaged her diction. She retired to raise a family with Richard Arlen, her co-star in Wings. 

Here she is in the 1922 Roach short The Golf Bug with Parrott:

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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Polly Moran and Company in “Her Painted Hero”

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Mack Sennett produced short Her Painted Hero (1915).

In this early Polly Moran comedy, Polly moons around a stage door hoping for a glimpse of a certain matinee idol (Hale Hamilton). She is partially compensated for her assertiveness by making the acquaintance of two drinking stage hands (Slim Summerville and Charlie Murray). Her father (Harry Booker) disapproves. Then—her uncle dies, leaving millions. Suddenly daughter and father live in a mansion. Yet the stagehands continue to vie for her affections. She holds a fete and invites the matinee idol, who attends.  The father and suitors try to break it up and the idol is only too happy to have them do that, he wants to escape from her clutches! Polly turns the tide by offering to back a show (always a weakness for an actor) but only if she can co-star. She naturally makes a disaster of the show, overturning scenery, setting it on fire. The curtain is rung up, and she’s attached to it. Then everybody fights. The audience sits and enjoys the whole thing…even the fire, which is devastating but is conveniently confined only to the stage. In the end, the actor and suitors leave, and father gives daughter an old fashioned spanking. Look for Harold Lloyd in a small role as a minister!

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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