One of Chaplin’s More Tasteless Comedies: The Property Man

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 1, 2015 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Property Man (1914)

Something feels original about this film in contrast with most of Chaplin’s earlier Keystones. Not brilliant, but in his own voice. Charlie plays a prop man in a vaudeville house, whose ineptitude causes much chaos. There are some echoes of Kid Auto Races at Venice when his character keeps winding up in front of the audience; but here the audience is made up of Keystone personnel, including Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, and Mack Sennett himself. Mostly he just knocks things down and ruins the performers’ acts.

For sheer meanness, The Property Man contains some of Chaplin’s most tasteless moments. In the film, Charlie doles out endless abuse on a fellow stage hand (Josef Swickard), who happens to be about 90 years old. When we see the old fellow struggle with a heavy steamer trunk we assume that Charlie is going to come to his aid; instead he merely helps the old guy get it onto his back. Later when the man stumbles and is pinned beneath the trunk, Charlie sits on top of it in a misguided effort to pry it off. On several occasions throughout the film, Chaplin gives the same character a few swift kicks just for the heck of it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss 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 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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Tomorrow at AMMI: John Ford’s “Stagecoach”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow, August 1 at 2:00pm, as part of its John Ford series, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria Queens will be screening the 1939 classic Stagecoach. 

Nowadays Ford is so much associated with westerns that it is odd to consider that for around a decade they were thought of as part of his past. He’d made his reputation making westerns during the silent era, but when talkies came in his movies tended to be comedies, sea stories and tales of Ireland. Westerns weren’t considered appropriate for A-list directors in the thirties. After the failure of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930, the major studios shunned them, although little outfits like Monogram Pictures churned them out as B movies by the bucketload. Stagecoach marked Ford’s return to the genre, and the start date of its rehabilitation as mainstream, serious entertainment. The great period will last another twenty years, then tapering off in the sixties.

I consider Stagecoach one of the best, most perfect movies ever, western or no, bar none. Its screenplay (by Dudley Nichols, with uncredited work by Ben Hecht) has become a sort of a template that has been copied countless times since and in many genres: the little microcosm of misfits trapped in a dangerous situation.

The film (like most of Ford’s westerns) was shot in Arizona’s gorgeous, iconic Monument Valley.  The stagecoach, run by Andy Devine, is set to make its usual run, but the cavalry rides up to inform him that Geronimo is on the warpath so the army will be providing an escort. The passengers include a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and the drunken town doctor (Thomas Mitchell), both forced to leave town by a morality committee. Also on board is an oddly religious whiskey salesman (Thomas Meek) and a pregnant lady (Louise Platt). At the last second, three others get on board: the sheriff  (George Bancroft), for protection; the town banker, because he has just stolen the contents of the bank’s safe (Berton Churchill); and a gambler (John Carradine), who is a son of the South and is chivalrously drawn to protect the pregnant lady, also of the south (whom he recognizes as the daughter of his old Confederate general). Just outside of town, they pick up John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, an escaped convict with a heart of gold. Stagecoach was to be the breakthrough film for Wayne, who’d starred in the ill-fated The Big Trail, and had been relegated to low-budget B movies ever since.

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Soon, the cavalry bails on them (“we have our orders”, a constant theme in westerns: the letter vs. spirit of the law) and they are on their own. Another major theme is honest goodness vs. hypocrisy. Very Christian in the real sense. The downtrodden, though “bad” by society’s standards, are stripped of pretension and therefore free to be honestly good. The characters in this camp are the doctor, the prostitute (who cares for the pregnant woman’s baby even though the pregnant woman shunned her) and the Ringo Kid (who treats the prostitute like a lady when everyone else treats her like a pariah. Unlike the other men, here the Kid is the REAL gentleman). The gambler is sort of in the middle. He lives by the code of chivalry, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Though he is a gambler, we approve of his single-minded protection of the pregnant lady. Yet, he is among those who are cruel to the prostitute, and — in a beautiful, terrible moment at the climax, when it looks like they will be captured by Indians, he is about to shoot her in the head rather than let her be raped. Ford clearly disapproves of this impulse, and lets us off the hook when Carradine gets an arrow in him at the last second. The cavalry arrives anyway, but if she had been captured by Indians…well, he comes back to that question in The Searchers. The other major hypocrite is the banker, a blowhard who speechifies about the American economy, etc, while he is nothing more than a cowardly thief.

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Great touches in the film : Andy Devine calling out to his team of horses (“yah!”) as they speed along: it’s magical, reminds me of Santa Claus and his reindeer. The team running (especially against the backdrop of the gigantic mesas) is a beautiful sight. And then there is Yakima Canutt’s famous stunt that made it look like the Ringo Kid crawled under the rig as it charged along — a spectacular moment.

Following the hair-raising climax, with the stagecoach chased by Indians and nearly caught, then rescued by cavalry. At this stage, you’d think the movie is over, but there’s an added prize, a limax after the climax. A showdown between the Ringo Kid and the three brothers he wants to kill. How do you think it tuns out?

For tickets go here. 

100 Years of Bathing Beauties?

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by travsd

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Depending on how you measure it and whom you believe, July 2015 may mark the centennial anniversary of that aesthetic troupe of nymphets known as the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, a gaggle of swim-suited sirens whom Sennett employed in his films and in his promotional materials and live events.

The date comes from a couple of places. An essay called “Splashes of Fun and Beauty: Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties” by Hilda Haeyere, in Rob King and Tom Paulus’s 1970 book Slapstick Comedy gives that date. And Simon Louvish’s Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett has a quote from director Eddie Cline saying they were featured in a Louise Fazenda from around that time. But Louvish is quick to adjust that, saying that the formation of Keystone-Triangle (one of the many corporation iterations of Sennett’s production company) in 1917 would be the more proper time frame. And Brent Walker, author of Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory says, “Bathing girls (mostly LA Athletic Club swimmers and divers such as Ivy Crosthwaite and Aileen Allen) started showing up in 1915 Mutual films. But it was the series of Woodley Specials that Eddie Cline made in 1917 that seemed to cement the Sennett bathing girls as a “thing,” who were then featured in postcards during the Paramount era circa 1918-19.”

Further, a swim-suited Mabel Normand’s first film for Sennett in 1911 was The Diving Girl. In 1912 would follow The Water Nymph. And the idea seems to have kept evolving, developing, picking up steam. Thus, July 1915 doesn’t feel particularly special or significant, although it is the date you will find on Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the internet, and we don’t want to appear to have been caught napping.

The idea for a cinematic troupe of “Bathing Girls” or “Bathing Beauties” was really just a refinement of stuff that was in the air. One strong influence in Sennett’s work was burlesque. Sennett had worked at least a couple of seasons in burlesque in New York between the years 1902 and 1908. Burlesque at this time was closer to what we think of as a “revue”, the girl element consisting of a chorus line of cuties performing cheeky song and dance numbers; stripping wouldn’t commonly be part of the equation for decades.

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

And then there was the example of professional swimmer Annette Kellerman, popularizer of the the lady’s one piece swimsuit, who’d become a vaudeville and film star starting around 1907.  And let us not forget Broadway’s most famous chorus line, the Ziegfeld Girls, a staple of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies since its formation in 1908 (later much imitated by a whole slate of other Broadway revues).

Gratuitous cavorting in swimgear became such a staple of Keystone and Sennett comedies that by A Bedroom Blunder (1917), there was an entire chorus of them, and they were branded the Sennett Bathing Girls (sometimes known by other names). Their insertion into any comedy was always hilariously gratuitous: a busload of the girls might spill out onto the beach where they would liven up a Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon or Billy Bevan short by stretching, jiggling and preening while playing with an inflatable beach ball.

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with Billy Bevan

Much like the Keystone Kops, the membership in this troupe was fluid and constantly shifting. Members in this elite sorority at various times included Carole Lombard, Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver, Madeline Hurlock, Anita Garvin,  Kathryn McGuire, Sybil Seely, and Virginia Fox.  (Gloria Swanson, though she worked for Sennett, was never one of the Bathing Girls, and she was distressed to ever hear anyone say she was, although people continue to, right down to the present day).

By the late 20s, the Bathing Girls were becoming the main attraction in many Sennett comedies. Sennett’s studio didn’t last very long into the sound era, but even if it had, the advent of stronger enforcement of the Production Code after 1934 would have made a continuation of the Bathing Girls unlikely. (Sam Goldwyn’s “Goldwyn Girls”, such a staple of Eddie Cantor pictures, seem to vanish around that time). At any rate, in the ensuing decades it eventually became the case that nearly EVERY woman was wearing what previously would have been considered a scandalous bathing suit — no need for “Bathing Beauties” to be a thing. America was now a Universal Bathing Girl Nation.

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The 1924 Harry Langdon short “Picking Peaches” has him judging the Sennett Bathing Girls in a beauty pageant

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 a New Bogdanovich Comedy (and Our Cautious Optimism)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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It’s an exciting time to be a film geek of a certain order (i.e., me). Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is expected to see daylight sometime next year and now I learn this morning that this new romantic comedy by Peter Bogdanovich will be getting a limited release as of August 21.

It’s his birthday today — I was going to do a more general post, but now we have She’s Funny That Way to look forward to. To say that our optimism is cautious is to put it mildly. While Bogdanovich has made some of our favorite films, he’s also made quite a few bewildering and horrendous turkeys. We’ll get to both in half a tic, but I do want to first insert some reasons for optimism: the new movie is backed by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and stars Owen Wilson, Joanna Lumley, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Jennifer Anniston, Tovah Feldshuh and Bogdanovich past masters Cybill Shepherd, Austin Pendleton and Tatum O’Neal among many others (I’m aging myself – -I have no idea who those younger actors in the credits are). A lot of people seem to have gone to the wall on his behalf in order to make a success out of this thing, out of admiration, or for old time’s sake, or whatever. On the other hand…it’s co-written by his wife Louise Stratton, has gotten mixed reviews thus far, and is in the same genre (ensemble rom-com) as most of his most terrible movies. So: we’ll see. I am keeping an open mind, and am hopeful.

Why do I care?

Well, to be of my age is to have seen and re-seen two of his important films at a crucial time, and to have been deeply impacted and highly influenced by them. I refer not to his first great film, 1971’s The Last Picture Show (though) it’s beautiful as I didn’t see until it was 20 years old. I refer instead to his next two pictures, What’s Up, Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

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The former film is of course Bogdanovich’s tribute to the screwball comedy and directors like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Somehow, through whatever alchemy, he managed to create a near flawless comedy. There’s the brilliant farcical script (by Bogdanovich, Buck Henry and two other writers) about confusion resulting from several matching bags, which puts me in mind of Mack Sennett, which further puts me in mind of French farce. There’s the impeccable casting, especially Barbara Streisand in what I consider her greatest screen role, and an ensemble composed ENTIRELY of genius character actors, including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, and John Hillerman and about two dozen others. The weakest link is probably Ryan O’Neal as the romantic lead. He does his job, and he doesn’t spoil the picture by any means, and he’s even funny, but…..well, he’s in VERY distinguished company here, isn’t he? Lastly, in addition to Bogdanovich’s masterful direction of the cast, it’s shot by Lazlo Kovacs and edited by Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for editing Jaws), and every shot feels perfect, as does the rhythm (which is so CRUCIAL to comedy).

Ya wanna see how cinematographers and editors and directors and actors can all collaborate to make great comedy? Look at one of my favorite moments in the film, when Kahn, as O’Neal’s fiance is given a wrong address and stumbles upon a bunch of gangsters in the middle of torturing somebody in an abandoned waterfront warehouse. Doesn’t sound funny, but it’s hysterical — it’s all in the feel.

At any rate, I probably watched this film on tv 15 times as a kid, and it became a sort of seldom-matched gold standard for me. This film has a joke, a line, or a gag every second. So do the great comedies of yesteryear, and that is what I DEMAND from a comedy. Anything less is lazy-ass shit.

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Paper Moon influenced me in an entirely different way. There was one immediate element to grab me in this one — a kid. Tatum O’Neal is just a couple of years older than me, and in movies like this and The Bad News Bears (1975) she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this film is SO evocative of the period (The Depression), it gets the mis en scene so right, I was in awe even as a child. The 70s were halcyon days for nostalgia about past decades; my whole love for vaudeville is filtered through that era’s look BACK at earlier decades. And I really loved the LOOK of Ryan O’Neal’s character in this movie, the mustache and hat — and the character of the door-to-door con man. A big impression.

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Now, I haven’t seen all of his films, but I’ve seen many of them, and I’m surprised to find that there’s only three in the bunch I found downright terrible. His early AIP movie Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff is extremely interesting and even a classic of its kind. Daisy Miller (1974) gets a bad rap. I think it’s a near perfect adaptation of James’ novel but for the crucial drawback of Cybil Shepherd’s tone-deaf performance, a near literal bull in a China closet. The director was not thinking with his brain when he made the movie, know what uh mean? Mask (1985), Noises Off (1992) and The Cat’s Meow (2001) are all well-realized, perfectly competent if unambitious films, neither bad nor remarkable. (My kids even really love Noises Off).

But the bad ones…are quite bad. I tried to watch Nickelodeon (1976) when researching Chain of Fools but found it unwatchable….I couldn’t get more than about ten minutes in. It’s set in the silent era, and I saw him trying to slam that same breakneck, Hawksian pace in. It’s not a one-size fits all thing. It either suits the material and the performers or it doesn’t. I saw the cast trying too hard, and I couldn’t watch it. I’ll have to go back and give it another shot at some point. But I did watch all (or most of) They All Laughed (1981) and Illegally Yours (1988), and found them both abysmal. The former film has its points of interest: the cast includes the ill-fated Dorothy Stratton, as well as Audrey Hepburn (in one of her last, increasingly rare film appearances), and Ben Gazzara (with whom Hepburn had had a relationship)…and a bespectacled John Ritter, trying very hard as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in. But the movie is almost completely incoherent, and (it should go without saying) not funny. And Illegally Yours, which features a bespectacled Rob Lowe as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in, is even a notch or two below that.

Still….we like and respect Bogdanovich as a critic, author, actor, and most of the time as a director, so we hope this new one is good. Or, at least, good enough.

To learn more about comedy film please check out 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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Stan Laurel in “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo) with tags , , , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Stan Laurel solo comedy Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride (1925), co-directed by Joe Rock and Scott Pembroke. This comedy was made two years before Laurel’s teaming with Oliver Hardy, when Laurel was still a struggling, wanna-be comedy star who could never quite click. That said, Laurel’s best solo comedies were parodies of other pictures, and this is a film of that type. It’s probably one of his best solo comedies. It’s obviously a spoof of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, made with John Barrymore five years earlier, as well as the Robert Louis Stevenson book itself.

Silliness is the order of the day. Laurel’s “Mr. Pride” commits evils of the mildest sort:  stealing children’s ice cream and scaring a woman by popping a paper bag near her head. And of course there is the great fun of the transformation and the make-up. Jerry Lewis would later go to town with his own parody of this story and this scene in The Nutty Professor (1963). One doubts he ever saw this film but he did know and admire Laurel — one has to wonder if got some inspiration from hearing about this film, at least.

To learn more about silent comedy please check out 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “The Half-Breed”

Posted in Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the film The Half-Breed (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks. Based on a story by western writer Bret Harte, it was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and directed by Allan Dwan.

It’s an unusual film for Fairbanks. It was released at a time when nearly all of his pictures were comedies or adventure/comedies. This one feels more like straight-up western melodrama, with perhaps a jigger of magical whimsy, Fairbanks being Fairbanks (and Loos being Loos).  Doug plays a wild “half breed” who lives in a tree in the forest.  He is known as “The Wilderness Man”. He meets a girl (Alma Rubens) when he chases drunken Indians away from the front of her house. It comes down to a choice between the nice girl and a rowdy girl from the faro parlor (Jewel Carmen) who escapes from her pimp into the forest. But this is Hollywood. No one ever winds up with the bad girl. And since it’s a Fairbanks vehicle it’s not just a bunch of lovey-dovey scenes and conversations. In addition to his many fights against entire gangs of ruffians, he also dives off a cliff into a river and swims across, and performs a hair-raising rescue during a forest fire. The film was thought lost for many years until prints began to turn up in the late 1970s, and various reconstructions and restorations over the years have resulted in the watchable prints we enjoy today.

To learn more about silent film history please check out 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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Lisa Kudrow: The Comeback

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Television, Women with tags , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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It’s Lisa Kudrow’s birthday today. A gentleman neither asks nor tells a lady’s age — Google it, if you MUST reduce her to mathematics.

It’s been a long term goal of mine to start talking about contemporary comedians, for several reasons.

One is, (in case it’s not obvious) my overarching goal is always to describe a continuum, to paint a portrait that connects the past to present. As I say almost daily and no one ever seems to hear, I’m a writer and performer, not a “scholar” or “historian”. I don’t give a crap about any facts. If you MUST have facts, if you’re all about the facts, for God’s sake, get out of my sight — don’t ask me for any, and unless you have some sort of virtual voodoo death wish, don’t CORRECT me on any. “Close enough” is close enough for me. Always has been, always will be. I am after ESSENCES, not facts. If you have a problem with it, sing into your hat. I’m not interested.

Two is. I am not interested in classic comedians purely for their own sake, and I don’t think comedy died in when color arrived or anything like that. There are PLENTY of figures from the last several decades whom I REVERE, including many contemporary people. So to balance out my frequent raving about how everything sucks, I’ll now submit some celebration of things that don’t.

For a long time, I’ve been tossing around the idea of an annual award for comedy, or comic acting. It doesn’t get enough respect, and there really isn’t one that I’m aware of. Yes, there is a “Best Acting in a Comedy Series” Emmy…but my award would encompass film, tv and web. And, yes, it’s about acting — the best comic performances (to my mind) have moments of pathos. The sort of things I’d give such an award to? At random, among many others, Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996), Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind (2003), Ricky Gervais in The Office (2001) and Extras (2005) and Melissa McCarthy in just about anything.

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And so we come to Kudrow. I haven’t heard enough raving about this show and this performance, so I will do some. Believe it or not, I was only dimly aware of her work on Friends (1994-2004) — I didn’t watch much TV in those years, and the traditional tv sit-com format seemed bankrupt to me by that point. I perhaps saw a couple of episodes, and her character on the show impressed me as derivative and not very inspired. So The Comeback came as something of a revelation. I didn’t see the first season during its initial 2005 run. I watched it in the run-up to the second (and presumably last) season, which ran last year.

In The Comeback Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a washed-up sit-com star who becomes a reality tv star, gradually crawling her way back into the limelight by any means necessary and at whatever cost. What I absolutely adore about it is the complexity of the character,which makes for a very rich viewing experience. Her life is a constant car wreck, but you can’t help rooting for her in the same way that you sometimes root for bad guys in movies to “get away with it.” She’s dim and superficial, and yet her ingenuity and shamelessness in going after what she wants assumes Superheroic proportions. She careens from being attractive to repellent and back again, and can be even both at once on occasion. Her behavior frequently embarrasses us to the point of mortification in a manner I would call Gervais-esque. Her blind immorality takes her to some unsavory places, but in the end she does have a heart and a conscience and she regrets her mistakes in a manner that’s sympathetic in the tradition of the great comedy characters (Barney Fife, Felix Ungar). She is also so insecure that she walks around in terror all the time (terror which she can’t show, because she’s in show business), and she’s so high strung that she frequently snaps and flips out. And Kudrow (who’s quite beautiful) makes herself as ugly as she needs to be to make us laugh.

And she’s screamingly funny. Kudrow is co-creator of the show with Michael Patrick King. And I’m imagining that much of the dialogue comes out of improv, out of her own head in the moment. I find the appalling things she says gut-bustingly funny, and her unique character, the manner in which she says them, even funnier. It has been speculated that she based the character on Shelly Long, and it’s uncanny, because I was able to perceive it before I even read that anywhere. She sometimes seems to be doing Shelly Long. And what’s even funnier about that is that Long is ANOTHER comedy actor I’d give one of my thus-far non-existent comedy acting awards to, for her role as Diane Chambers in Cheers — one of the great tv characters of all time. And anyway, as I said, Valerie Cherish is ultimately sympathetic. The portrait, if it is a portrait,  is as much a tribute as it is a lampoon.

Anyway, it appalls me that more people don’t know this show. Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius.

For more on great comedians 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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