The OTHER “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the W.C. Fields-Chester Conklin comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928), directed by Eddie Sutherland. As the name suggests, the film was a remake of the Mack Sennett film of 14 years earlier, although much altered. Mack Swain returns as Tillie’s father, but the now elderly Marie Dressler was replaced by Louise Fazenda, and the entire story was transplanted to a circus to make it a better vehicle for Fields.

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Fields’ film career was floundering at this stage, and even the recent effort to form a team with Conklin, begun with the previous year’s Two Flaming Youths wasn’t saving it. The critics panned this film, and the public stayed away. Sadly, this film is now considered lost; no known copies survive.

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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Woman Writers I Have Loved

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Women with tags , , , on March 2, 2015 by travsd
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, one of the few flickers of light during the Dark Ages

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, one of the few flickers of light during the Dark Ages

A number of months ago an Internet thing made the rounds asking participants to name ten writers whom you love or who influenced you. And virtual tongues wagged in the aftermath, as they always do, about how the men hadn’t listed any women, whereas the women had listed plenty of men. I got some credit for listing one woman — Camille Paglia (ha, whom I’m sure plenty of feminists will say doesn’t count.) Still, one in ten, beats zip you gotta admit. And ten is a pretty small sample.

Now I’ll never presume to speak for the Mad Marchioness (she does a pretty good job speaking for herself) and though I do admire her and am influenced by her every day, I’m going to circumvent her usual complaint about Woman’s History Month (she calls it “Special Olympics for Women”. Think about it: a month?! Thanks for nothing! How about 50% of everything every day?) .

But still and all, let’s pretend that I’m casting a net wider than ten writers; here is a list of some female writers whom I consider great, whom I read (or listen to or watch in some cases) for pleasure or edification, who have actually influenced or inspired me and actually matter to me, or sometimes just stimulate me.

In no particular order:

Zora Neal Hurston

Gertrude Stein

Edna Ferber

Camille Paglia

Sarah Vowell

Elaine Pagels

Lillian Hellman

Agatha Christie

Anita Loos

Dorothy Parker

Ayn Rand

Willa Cather

Emily Dickinson

Gertrude Berg

Katherine Dunn

Emma Goldman

Valerie Solanas

Flannery O’Connor

Hrothsvitha

Hannah Arendt

Aphra Behn

Sarah Kane

Jennifer Egan

Young Jean Lee

Jhumpa Lahiri

I like being influenced by strong-willed artists and thinkers, not insipid ones. You’ll find some on the extreme right and some on the extreme left (useless categories anyway), and plenty of names that will outrage everything you stand for. If you’re not outraging somebody, I strongly feel that you are wasting my time.

If I say the Bronte Sisters for some reason I feel like I’m being patronizing, even though both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are among the novels I know best (and by that I mean best in the world, by ANY author, male or female, having read them many times, and watched several movie versions to boot).  The same is true of Jane Austen, George Elliott and Louis May Alcott (the latter of whom I only read for the first time a couple of years ago). And I REALLY loved Sylvia Plath when I was about 20, although I feel that to say so sounds like the height of being patronizing (why, some of my best friends are women!) although it is true. (Who gives a crap about that bore she was married to?)

And just so that you know that I’m NOT being patronizing: there are plenty of female writers I don’t like, or can’t stand, or don’t impress me, or I like well enough but they haven’t influenced me. But what’s the point of listing him them here? It’ll be my pleasure to savage them later, on a one to one basis, same as I would to any man.

Tonight at BAM: The Giddy Pleasures of “Forty Guns”

Posted in BROOKLYN, CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns, Women with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2015 by travsd

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Head’s up, New Yorkers! Tonight at 5:30pm and 9:30pm the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be showing the EXTREMELY enjoyable Barbara Stanwyck western Forty Guns (1957)

Written, directed and produced by Samuel Fuller, this is not only one of the most gorgeously shot black and white films I’ve seen (especially for its gorgeous shot compositions—up there with Ford, Welles?) but also a bit of a camp hoot—a close kin with another of my favorite “Lady’s Westerns” Johnny Guitar. Barbara Stanwyck (in an early costume fitting for The Big Valley) is the mistress of a massive ranch, who rides everywhere at the head of a column of no less than 40 mean cowboys. It is both surreal and full of Freudian sexuality. There’s even a theme song that goes “She’s a hard ridin’ woman with a whip….”

"Yah! Yah!"

“Yah! Yah!”

Into town (Tombstone, AZ) ride three Federal bounty hunters, all brothers (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry and a third one —a kid). Hank Worden is the simple-minded blind marshall. Stanwyck’s bad guys, led by her wild kid brother, shoot the marshall in the leg for sport and then commence to shoot up the town. Sullivan, who is recognized, scares off the 40, and then pistol whips the drunken kid. A chain of events follows. Sullivan is here to serve papers on a deputy who committed a crime, and bring him in. Both the sheriff (Dean Jagger) and deputy are in Stanwyck’s pocket. When the deputy is in custody, the sheriff shoots him so that he won’t testify. (In typical Sam Fuller fashion this is very graphic — the guy froths at the mouth).

"You may go in. Dr. Freud will see you now"

“You may go in. Dr. Freud will see you now”

Then Sullivan and Stanwyck begin a romance – he saves her in a spectacular tornado and then they “talk” on the barn floor. Later, in town, a trap is laid for Sullivan – his kid brother unexpectedly saves him. (A spectacular stunt as the gut-shot gunman tumbles to the street from a second story window). The crook’s body is displayed in store window like he was one of the Clantons (see any movie about the Gunfight at the OK Corral). In another scene, the sheriff (who has a masochistic obsession with Stanwyck) shows his jealousy for Sullivan, and realizing he is bested, hangs himself.

Meanwhile Gene Barry has been romancing the gunsmith’s sex-starved daughter—much hilarious Freudian business here. On their wedding day, Barry is murdered by Stanwyck’s kid brother, who has been released. The kid is put in jail and escapes with his sister as hostage. Sullivan, ice cold, shoots them both. Later we realize she is OK. Sullivan is such a good shot he shot her right where he wanted to!

Sullivan is about to leave town in his buckboard, and then Stanwyck comes running down the street, having exchanged her black cowboy outfit for a Victorian dress, meek as you please, and jumps on the wagon. Shrew Tamed!

Ticket and info are here. 

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Behind the Velvet Curtain

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , on March 2, 2015 by travsd

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Jules Feiffer: “Kill My Mother”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by travsd

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At the age of 86, Jules Feiffer still has the ability to reinvent himself and stretch in surprising new directions. Knowing how I love him, the Mad Marchioness got me his new graphic novel Kill My Mother for Christmas. While the graphic novel is a relatively new art form, the book brings Feiffer back to his origins as an apprentice working for Will Eisner on the dark, hard-boiled comic The Spirit. Kill My Mother is a gritty noir, set in the 1930s and 40s, drawing from Hammett and Chandler and Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks and James M. Cain. What grim humor it contains is comedy of character. The secretary of a sleazy private eye is drawn into a missing person’s case, with a series of Chandlersque coincidences also drawing in her teenage daughter (who is motivated by the titular Elektra Complex) and her boyfriend, and others, on a twisty, turny journey that takes us from “Bay City” (isn’t that wear Starsky and Hutch are from?) to Hollywood to the war-torn South Pacific. Most impressively, the story is driven entirely by its female characters, including (spoiler alert) some we could have sworn were male. If you only know Feiffer’s children’s books, or those political cartoons with philosophizing dancers, then you may not realize how brutal he can be. This is the same Feiffer who could create Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge….paired with that New York kid who was raised on a diet of pulp. His draftsmanship is still in fine form, and this looks like a hell of a lot of work for a man of his age. Most impressive. I wonder what the tough old bird is cooking up next?

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Fred and Ginger Pictures

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by travsd

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It may shock you to learn that I hadn’t seen any of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies until less than ten years ago. I had previously seen clips of their dancing, but apparently that had been an insufficient inducement to watch the movies. Many people familiar with my vaudeville book are shocked to learn that I’m not a “musicals person”. The truth is (despite the fact that my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz is a musical) I primarily became interested in vaudeville as an outgrowth of my love for classic comedy. But a few years ago I undertook a project to self-educate myself about musicals (to overcome my own prejudice, and to learn more about many of the folks I had written about in No Applause). I am fairly well versed in them at this point, and can now finesse my earlier position: it’s not that I hate musicals per se; it’s that I don’t indiscriminately love them as a genre. In sum, I am extremely finicky;  I only hate most of them.

I actually watched the Fred and Ginger ones a bit earlier than that project though — when I was researching No Applause. And of course I love them. People go on so about their dancing, it’s seldom mentioned how funny they are. Fred and Ginger are terrific light comedians, charming singers (and these movies contain some of the greatest songs in the American popular canon), the scripts are sophisticated and witty, and I have truly grown to appreciate their dancing.

Two of my favorite people in the world: Jules Feiffer and the Mad Marchioness are Fred and Ginger fans. Neither one can go wrong in matters of taste.

Unlike Astaire, Rogers had already been in over two dozen movies at the time they teamed, including the seminal 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Though Astaire had been a star of vaudeville and Broadway, he was the cinema newbie at the time.

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Flying Down to Rio (1933)

The first pairing of Astaire and Rogers, although they do not star—they are about 5th and 6th in the billing. But their personalities shine far brighter than those of the leads (Dolores Del Rio, et al). A bandleader (slash songwriter slash amateur pilot) falls in love with a Brazilian heiress he met at a Miami hotel, and books his band down in Rio. It turns out she is set to marry a landowner, so various schemes ensue. But that’s not the important part. This is the movie with the famous set piece of several dozen chorus girls doing their dances on the wings of flying airplanes. It also has the song “Rio by the Sea-o”. Character actors include Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton as (what else?) hotel managers. Fred plays one of the musicians, Ginger the band’s singer. They dance together on one of the numbers. It was on the basis of this, and their chemistry in acting together, that they were made into a screen team.

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The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Fred and Ginger’s first starring vehicle, adapted from the Broadway show The Gay Divorce Astaire had appeared in the previous year. Contains songs by various songwriters, including Cole Porter’s gorgeous “Night and Day”, and a dance craze song called “The Continental”. The plot is farcical and actually quite dumb—has a million holes in it and is completely illogical, but who cares? It starts in Paris. Fred is a musical comedy star and his friend Edward Everett Horton a lawyer. He meets Ginger on the ship to London and accidentally rips her dress. he wants to see her again but she totally brushes him off. He finally finds her again in London and gets the same treatment. It turns out she is married and seeking a divorce. The lawyer arranges for Ginger to be seen meeting with a gigolo so there will be grounds for the divorce. She mistakes Fred for the gigolo. The film remains hugely entertaining for all the usual reasons, the performances (including these plus the delightful Eric Blore), the songs, the art deco art direction etc., etc, etc. It (like most of the Fred and Ginger musicals) was directed by Mark Sandrich, a former silent film director who was also the father of TV director Jay Sandrich.

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Roberta (1935)

The original Broadway stage production (with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbachi) featured Bob Hope in his breakout role, the one that took him from vaudeville to stardom. It must have been galling to him not to have been cast in the film! In the film version Fred and Ginger share the limelight with Randolph Scott (who’s perfectly cast as a lumbering Midwestern football player) and Irene Dunn. It’s a perfect, magical 30s comedy. Fred is a bandleader stranded in France in want of a gig. Scott is just his friend, tagging along, but he suddenly remembers that his Aunt Minnie is the most sought-after dress-maker in Paris (under the name “Roberta”). They go and seek her patronage. She turns out to be a delightful character…having all these American virtues, appreciation for the down-to-earth, honesty, heartiness…but at the same time able to function in the glamorous world of Paris fashion. Irene Dunn plays her assistant and near-partner in the shop, definitely being groomed for succession. Rogers is masquerading as a French countess, but is really a singer and Astaire’s old flame. It’s obvious Scott and Dunn’s characters have chemistry but they’re slow in realizing it. Then Roberta dies, bringing Scott’s former fiancé, a gold-digger out of the woodwork, so now he’s confused. He and Dunn should be partners in the shop but now she’s mad at him. Then it turns out Dunn is a Russian princess! Somehow they all get together in the end. The awesome songs include “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (which is just kind of shoehorned in there) and “Lovely to Look At”.

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Top Hat (1935) 

The musicals of the 30s tend to transcend the usual disposableness that normally characterizes the genre, usually because of the beautiful art deco art direction, great ensemble casts of Broadway veterans, snappy (if light) scripts, and occasionally great songs. Top Hat is generally thought of as the best of the lot. Irving Berlin wrote a half dozen songs, two of which are complete classics, the brilliant “Cheek to Cheek” and the title song, which is really called “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. The script is good, well constructed farce and holds our attention, revolving around a mistaken identity. Rogers and Astaire fall in love (after she has complained about his tap dancing in the room over hers), but she mistakenly comes to believe he is the man who has married her friend (who is actually Edward Everertt Horton). The action is first laid in London, and then in a Venice that looks like one of the sets from The Wizard of Oz. The funniest part (surprise) is Eric Blore as the butler!

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Follow the Fleet (1936)

Not as strong as most of the others. A weird idea…an innocent Hollywood movie about love affairs between sailors and the women who are infatuated with them. Sure, there are intimations of sex, but they are very sanitized, never sordid. It as though the whole thing were being touched with gloves on, viewed through goggles. Why choose a subject that you can’t REALLY do? Perhaps they thought they would titillate just as much as they could, which wasn’t very much. Astaire and Rogers are one couple (former dance partners, now he’s in the Navy and she works in a dance hall). The other couple is fellow sailor Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet) as Rogers’ sex starved sister, who actually gets to sing a couple of numbers. The film doesn’t have the strong farcical premise most of their good ones have, in fact it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot at all. Nor does it have the strong cast of character actors and comic relief, or the sparkling dialogue of their better ones. Ultimately the film even resorts to the Mickey and Judy plot device – putting on a show to save the family boat. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is the most famous song from the score. Fred plays some jazz piano in addition to great dance numbers. Ginger gets a solo dance number in a segment that reminds one of Ruby Keeler.

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Swing Time (1936)

Directed by George Stevens! The dancing and songs are so great in these films the fact that they are great light comedies is often overlooked. This one has Victor Moore and Eric Blore. Astaire is a dancer and gambler. He is about to get married but his friends sabotage the wedding. He hops a freight train to New York in his tuxedo with his pal Pops (Moore). He meets Ginger when she tries to abscond with his quarter at a cigarette machine. She turns out to be a dance instructor. He of course takes the class, pretends he can’t dance, and then shows off when the moment is right. They fall in love, but the outstanding fiancé is an issue. In the end she is about to marry Fred’s rival, a bandleader, but Fred sabotages the wedding using the same tricks his friends used on him. The film has the terrific songs “Pick Yourself Up” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (possibly the most beautiful and romantic song ever). There is one blackface number which is wonderfully staged but intrinsically heinous and tough to transcend.

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Shall We Dance? (1937)

Fred and Ginger once again abetted by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Lots of great music by the Gershwins, including the classics “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the sublime “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. Lots of great dances in this. The plot casts Astaire as a ballet dancer named “Petrov” (who is really a down to earth American named Pete Peters who secretly wants to tap dance and is in love with Rogers night club star). As in all the films, Rogers plays hard to get, and the gist of the farce is that the press thinks they are married, but they are not. The plot starts in Paris, then shipboard (where there is a number in the art deco engine room, based around the rhythm of the pistons, as assisted by a convenient crew of ignominiously anonymous darkies), then finally they hit New York (where Rogers and Astaire do a great dance routine in the park on roller skates). Astaire gets to have much fun mixing ballet and tap. He also has a fun bit where he dances to a Victrola that winds down on him.

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Carefree (1938)

The plots of Fred and Ginger’s better films feel akin to screwball comedies. In this one Astaire is a shrink, Rogers his patient, the fiancé of his best friend (Ralph Bellamy)…but she falls in love with the doctor. In most of their films, Astaire is in love with Rogers while she plays hard to get; here it is a bit reversed. Some funny bits with Rogers running amok, first under an anesthetic, then under hypnosis. And Astaire is completely believable as a shrink—a different sort of role for him. I love Astaire’s diction and accent—though he’s from the midwest, he sounds urbane, New York, upper class. I note there’s almost always one or more nances and/or dopes in the cast…I’m guessing to make the somewhat fey dandy Astaire seem relatively macho by comparison as the hero. Here it is Franklin Pangborn as the nance, Ralph Bellamy as the dope. Also in the cast is an uncredited Hattie McDaniel. The Irving Berlin songs are perfectly wonderful, though none of them in this film were hits. The most interesting dance number has Astaire playing harmonica while he taps, then dancing with golf clubs and balls.

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The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

The last film of the original series. Lots of music but all period stuff from the teens. An interesting hybrid form (bio pic and romantic musical comedy) and a nice stretch for them, which they pull off just fine. Not just an Astaire-Rogers vehicle, but also a bio-pic about the century’s greatest dance team, whom the creators (very laudably) sought to remind the public about as their memory began to fade. The story has its share of drama and even tragedy, and the pair carry the heavier acting required very well. As all Hollywood bio-pics of the period do, the film plays havoc with the facts, but its still a wonderful picture. The art direction is lovely. The dancing is great but you also get a dance education: you get to see what the Castle Walk looked like, etc. Other treats include a young Walter Brennan and as their manservant, and Lew Fields playing himself in a larger role than might be expected. They even re-create the barber sketch that Castle had done at Fields’ theater early in the century.

At this stage, the team parted ways. Rogers, who had continued to appear in starring roles without Astaire throughout the partnership, wanted to pursue dramatic roles (she was to win the Best Actress Oscar in 1941 for Kitty Foyle). Astaire continued to make his mark in the musical genre as both a performer and choreographer in films like Holiday Inn  and Easter Parade. Times were changing, their musicals together were not doing as well at the box office, and their studio RKO was beginning to hit the financial problems that world remain with them until they ceased production in the mid 1950s.

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The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Although not originally intended that way, this became the magical Fred and Ginger reunion film. Made by the Freed Unit at MGM, Fred’s original screen partner for The Barkleys of Broadway was to have been his co-star from Easter Parade, Judy Garland, who was “unwell” at the time. The accident was most fortuitous; the Comden-Green script feels very “meta”.  It seems to cleverly play with our nostalgia for Astaire-Rodgers of the 30s, and with what we know about the pair in real life. In the 30s films the plots always ended with the two of them getting together (after she has played hard to get throughout the picture). Here instead they are a married theatrical couple…it is sort of as though we are catching up with their screen couple 10 or 15 years later. In the story, Ginger wants to get out from under his controlling thumb (in real life Astaire was the choreographer), and do dramatic acting instead (as Rogers had done throughout the forties). The cast features Oscar Levant. Hans Conreid has a funny little bit as a modern artist. Billie Burke plays a socialite. The songs by Ira Gershwin and Harry Warren are undistinguished; there are no new hits (although “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from Shall We Dance is nostalgically trotted out). The film contains an amazing dance number where Fred dances with countless pairs of shoes. Most of the numbers in this one are grating and not germane to the story though. The 30s were certainly better that “the Boring Years”. On the plus side, this is the team’s only film in color.

This was a one time pairing. Rogers had many great moments ahead of her, like in Monkey Business (1952) and Harlow (1965), although as time wore on, her screen career fizzled and most of her work was on television. Astaire remained a big screen presence, with many more classic musicals ahead of him like The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and  Silk Stockings (1957). He appeared in hit films as late as Towering Inferno (1974, for which he won an Oscar), and Ghost Story (1981).

For more on screen 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 etc

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To learn more about vaudeville veteransconsult 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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“Gigot”: Jackie Gleason’s Art Film

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jackie Gleason, Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is Jackie Gleason’s birthday – – a fitting time to talk about his most unique film, which is really saying something since his career also included Skidoo. 

The ultimate flowering of Gleason’s Poor Soul character was his 1962 film Gigot. Gleason wrote the story (turned into a screenplay by John Patrick, author of The Teahouse of the Augist Moon), which transplants his mute imbecile character to France in the 1920s, mashing up elements of numerous Chaplin and Tati films with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Gleason originally wanted Orson Welles to direct it, but Welles was still anathema in Hollywood and 20th Century Fox would not endorse the idea. It would undoubtedly have been a better film if they had done so. Instead they gave the reins to Gene Kelly, who was living in Paris at the time. Kelly allowed Gleason to give full vent to his self-indulgent instincts. There is very little humor in the film; most of it is maudlin kitsch, with Gleason constantly striving for our sympathy in a misguided effort to be Chaplinesque. Gleason does some of his funny dancing, and gives us a few slapstick moments, but most of the time he is busy being ridiculed and taken advantage of by cruel people, even as he cares for animals, a small child and a woman of the streets. It’s hard to be a Saint in the City. Gleason ought to be applauded for his ambition, but his notion to make the story French should set off alarm bells. The self-conscious bid to be “artistic” backfired with both press and public. Gleason was a great artist, but he made much better art when he stuck to what he knew, which was what went on at a tenement on Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

For more on classic comedy don’t 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

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

For 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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