Did the Code Hurt the Marx Brothers?

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2017 by travsd

“I sure wish these bean counters would let us be funny again!”

The origin of this post: A few days ago someone on social media asserted with enormous confidence, that “the Code hurt the Marx Brothers” (meaning, if you’re new to such things, that the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which began to be strictly enforced in 1934, was what damaged the team’s later films.) I had never looked at the question in quite that way before, and I think most people who think about it don’t.

Thanks to TCM and the Film Forum, I became something of an aficionado of pre-Code films. There are many genres that were deeply affected by the Code. Horror became less gory and gruesome. Gangster movies became less crude and violent. Melodramas, which were frequently about pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, lost about 3/4 of the kinds of stories they could tell. Musicals with chorus girls could no longer show near-nudity. But, I hadn’t really considered the Marx Brothers’s comedies in the light.

Typically, the blame for the Marx Brothers descent is laid at the feet of the studio, MGM, which is where the team started making movies in 1935 after parting ways with their previous studio, Paramount. The coincidence in timing, among other factors, makes it not-so-easy to sort out. Compare the Marx Brothers, for example, with someone like Mae West, who was CLEARLY and obviously hurt by the Code, and may be the most obvious example of a star who was. With her, it’s easy to identify. Her act clearly revolved around sexual naughtiness; the documentary record illustrates her struggles to maintain her vision once the Code went into effect; and the change in the tone and quality of her films after the Code is easy to spot. And Mae remained with the same studio, Paramount, the entire time, so it was not a question of changing horses in midstream.

With the Marx Brothers, it is muddier. As with many comedians, (lecherous) sexuality is a strand in their comedy, but it is not the only one or even necessarily a predominating one.  People often attempt to oversimplify them in this fashion, but it won’t do.  The two words — invariably — that occur to me whenever I think of the Marx Brothers are “anarchy” and “crazy”. Nonsense, surrealism. These qualities needn’t necessarily be affected by the prudish restrictions of a moral code, although it is likely that they will.

Another complicating factor is the fact that it all wasn’t skittles and beer PRIOR to the tightening of Code enforcement in 1934. The Code had been in place since 1930, there was already a loose observance of it. So when, for example The Cocoanuts. and Animal Crackers were adapted from stage to screen, cuts and changes had been made by Paramount to accommodate the Code. Beyond this, state and municipal local governments had their own local censorship authorities, and the Marx Bros. pre-code films were often already being snipped prior to screening.

Still: I think there may be something to the claim that the Code was a factor after 1934, or at least it’s worth considering. So over the weekend I zipped through the films for the zillionth time with an eye to this question. Ultimately, I realized, a complete, thorough, detailed survey is a much bigger job than I’m prepared (or inclined) to take on. It’s some scholar’s Ph.D. dissertation waiting to happen — that is, if it hasn’t already been written. But looked at cursorily, loosely, I think I managed to get a good feel for the kinds of things that are missing from the films after Duck Soup.

Stolen silverware cascading from Harpo’s coat in “Animal Crackers”. After the code, his character would need to go to jail for that, learn his lesson, and start an orphanage for deaf-mute juvenile pickpockets

The Code recommends care in depicting “theft” and avoiding “sympathy for criminals”. Presumably because of this, Harpo and Chico change drastically after the Code. Especially in the early pictures, the pair had been depicted as compulsive, shameless thieves and pickpockets. They rob the money out of the cash register in The Cocoanuts. Harpo lifts personal items off of unsuspecting victims so often it’s almost like his signature, part of the rich fabric of the human interaction in the films. He is Dickensian in this regard. This is missing from both characters in the MGM films or at least both dramatically reduced and justified. In the MGM films, the occasional swindle occurs, but usually against Groucho, or it’s done by the brothers to somehow help the hero and the ingenue. At worst, they skip hotel bills, and that sort of thing. But they are not forever swiping things without consequences as in the earlier films.

Similarly, another recurring motif that vanishes after the Code is the recurring spectacle of Harpo chasing women. “Rape” is proscribed by the Code and though most of us would never describe what Harpo will do when he catches the girl as “rape” (I picture a hug, a Fox Trot, and the kind of kiss you might receive from an affectionate St. Bernard), we are dealing with the bane of all comedians: literal minded people, pedants and bureaucrats. Even the suggestion of something untoward is gone. Harpo chasing down women is gone.

“Perversion” is also verboten, again ruling out Harpo material: like that strange scene in Animal Crackers where Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) first suggestively points out that Harpo “loves a horse”) and tell hims “I like little boys like you” and then proceeds to put the moves on him despite the fact that he has told her that he is “Five years old”. And then there’s that scene in Duck Soup, where the shoes at the foot of the bed suggest that not only has gone to bed with a woman he has just met (forbidden) but the horse he has been riding (perverted!) What would THIS Harpo have been about if we had encountered him in A Day at the Races? The movie has 50 horses in it!

Groucho, the most verbal of the team is also much affected. He makes suggestive jokes constantly in the first five movies (within the larger context of his nonsensical jokes). One that had been filmed but didn’t make it to theatres at the time, though it has been recently restored, is the line from his opening song, “I think I’ll try and make her.” But a couple of very suggestive lines remained in that film, as when he refers to Margaret Dumont’s “magnificent chest” and when he says “we took some the pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed.” These are the kinds of lines he would never get to say after the advent of strict Code enforcement.

Homosexuality was also considered a “perversion” at the time; and depictions or suggestions of it in Hollywood films decline sharply after 1934. Some of Groucho’s lines and coy come-ons with the gangster Alike Briggs in Monkey Business push that line for comedic purposes; you don’t see him doing that kind of thing in the MGM era; nor do you see him imitating a cat in heat as he also does in Monkey Business. 

Surely this was Zeppo’s favorite movie

Situations that are by definition Pre-Code, not to be found later: everything to do with Thelma Todd! The College Widow who romances (and then marries) all four brothers in Horse Feathers! The gun moll who frolicks in and around her bed and closet with Groucho in Monkey Business while her husband is away. In both movies she never seems to be wearing anything besides a slip. Rachel Torres performs a similar function in Duck Soup, although to a lesser degree. Vamp characters like Todd and Torres for Groucho and His brothers to chase and leer at are missing (for the most part) from the MGM films. Things are much more wholesome.

“Sedition” is another forbidden topic — Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are strongest in this quality, in both the spoken lines and the musical numbers. “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” he sings in the first film. In the second film he sings blithely about getting his share of political graft. The studios tried not to imply that politicians and officials took graft when the Code was enforced, or at least, when they did, they were sent to jail.

Some of these changes may have been a by-product of MGM’s strict adherence to storytelling principles. Or else they were imposed by the Hays Office. Personally, I think the culprit was left-handed moths.Or else it was the Code — and two pair of pants! Groucho gives us more than a hint of whom he blames in At the Circus, “There must be some way I can get that money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!” It’s a funny line, but back in the day there’d have been no need for a line — he just would have gone ahead and offended.

For more on comedy 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

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of the popular Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Several Seminal Salomés and the History of the Dance of the Seven Veils

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Dance, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2017 by travsd

Salomé, by Pierre Bonnaud, 1900

Today is St. John’s Day, the traditional birthday for John the Baptist. Note the timing: just as Christmas is pinned close to the winter solstice, St. John’s Day falls right after the summer solstice. No accident! In America the only folks who still give it much attention are the voodoo practitioners of New Orleans; as a culture we’ve transferred the impulse for a summer holiday to the Fourth of July.

At any rate, we take the occasion to talk about a St. John related fad that swept through American pop culture, especially vaudeville, in the early 20th century: the Salomé craze. If you know your New Testament or your Josephus, you know the tale: how Herod’s wicked step-daughter Salomé did a naughty dance (The Dance of the Seven Veils) for daddy, then demanded and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The story was tailor made to be a kink in the Victorian moral armor, Biblical in origin yet titillating. It became a frequent subject for painters in the 19th century.

Beardsley illustration for Wilde’s “Salomé”

It finally made its way to the stage (almost) in 1892 with a play by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Salomé began rehearsals that year with Sarah Bernhardt as star but was banned by British censors. Something was in the air. The following year Little Egypt made her debut in the Streets of Cairo exhibition in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One used a Biblical justification, the other an anthropological one, but the bottom line was clear: whatever the rationale, people wanted to look at sexy dances. At any rate, Wilde’s Salomé was first published in France in 1893, then in England in 1894, both editions with provocative illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. The first (private) British production was in 1905, but the ban for public productions was in place until 1931.

Alice Guszalewicz in the Strauss opera

But ya know how it is; if you want to create a market for something, forbid it. So, first buzz was created on the continent. In 1902, Max Reinhardt directed a version in Berlin in 1902. Richard Strauss saw this version, and was inspired to adapt it into an opera, which premiered in in 1905.  But the crucial leap to the popular stage came the following year.

Maud Allan

In 1906 Canadian-born modern dancer Maud Allen premiered her production Visions of Salomé in Vienna. It and she became a sensation. Billed as “The Salomé Dancer” she toured British music halls in 1908, playing 250 stands that year, and published her autobiography. This set off the craze.

Gertrude Hoffman

Gertrude Hoffman was the first to bring the Salomé dance to the American vaudeville stage in 1908, launching the local mania. Read my short squib on her here, and a much more robust post about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection by scholar/ librarian Ivy Marvel here. 

Mademoiselle Dazie

Mademoiselle Dazie was one of the first to imitate Hoffman’s Salomé act and present it on the vaudeville stage though we don’t have a picture of her in costume. Learn more about her here. 

Lotta Faust

Broadway star Lotta Faust was another who got in on the ground floor, touring vaudeville with a Salomé dance as early as 1908. We’ll be writing more about her in the coming months.

Julian Eltinge

Female impersonator Julian Eltinge also include a Salomé  number among his many drag specialties starting in 1908. Another female impersonator who did the Dance of the Seven Veils was British music hall performer Malcolm Scott.

Eva Tanguay

Though we don’t have a photo for it, Eva Tanguay’s 1909 Salomé  was said to have taken the whole thing up a notch, simulating orgasm, and further increasing her notoriety.

Aida Overton Walker

African American vaudevillian Aida Overton Walker toured with her Salomé act in 1911.

The Salomé  fad had wound down on stages by this point. But in later years, there were some notable films that kept the story out there:

Theda Bara

The 1918 film starring the notorious screen vamp Theda Bara is sadly lost — a tragedy for red-blooded heterosexual men everywhere!

Nazimova

The great Russian actress Alla Nazimova’s 1923 screen version was at once too retrograde (it was a long dead fad by the Jazz Age) and too modern (full of art deco design and contemporary dance — who wants a reinterpretation of this quintessential staple?) So it bombed at the box office, although it makes an interesting, if anomalous, artifact.

Kathryn Stanley

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Kathryn Stanley posed for this publicity still in 1926, although it doesn’t seem to be in support of a Sennett movie (seems to have been a local stage production). Too bad! A Mack Sennett spoof of the subgenre could have been a major hoot, although I’m sure it would have been deemed too blasphemous by religious groups. That John head needs to grow a beard though.

Salomé, Where She Danced (1945)

The 1945 film Salomé, Where She Danced, put Yvonne de Carlo on the map. And what a map! Va va voom!

Salomé (1953)

We sometimes forget that Rita Hayworth started out as a dancer. She reminds us and then some when she does the Dance of the Seven Veils in the 1953 Hollywood film.

Salomé’s Last Dance (1988)

Typically cray-cray Ken Russell version, complete with an Oscar Wilde framing device.

Salomé (2013)

I was lucky enough to see Al Pacino play Herod in Circle in the Square’s 1992 production of Wilde’s Salomé, with Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee as the title character. Pacino chewed up the scenery in the play, perhaps the first time the title character had been bumped from the center of her own vehicle. In 2013, he directed his own movie version and — same thing. Jessica Chastain is Salomé , but I had to hunt around for a bit for a photo where Pacino isn’t hogging the limelight!

My version! How could I not include it? In my 2008 revue No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Show That Made Vaudeville Famous at Theater for the New City I cast Leela Corman (best known as an illustrator and graphic novelist, but who is also an accomplished belly dancer) as Salomé, and Art Wallace as the cat-calling head of John the Baptist. And on that sacrilegious note, we end our post.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including fads and phenomena like the Salomé craze,  consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever titillating books are sold.

Cinematic Selfies: The Most Self Indulgent Vanity Movies Ever

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on June 23, 2017 by travsd

This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Self Indulgent Vanity Movies, but merely  some of the most egregious examples that sprang to mind. To qualify for this list, a film must: 1) be primarily about gratifying the whim of its star(s) over, say, such elements as plot, character, or dialogue; 2) be about glorifying the star to a nakedly transparent, downright embarrassing degree; and 3) possess few redeeming qualities, or none at all. Note that these bad films are not made by people at the bottom, but those at the top, those with so much power there is no one to check it. Usually the film will have either a weak director (cowed by the star) or the star will direct the film himself. In either case, in these examples, it’s the same as having no director.

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)

Milton Berle’s only true starring vehicle after having become Mr. Television — and it’s a weirdie. Essentially, Berle plays a character who is indistinguishable from himself: America television’s top tv star and a man so obnoxious you want to throttle him. What makes it weird is that it’s such an unflattering portrayal: he’s manically ambitious, screws over his friends, dumps women when better ones come along, and basically drives everyone away with bad jokes. Appearing in this film, released at the top of his fame, seems like almost some sort of penance, a masochistic martyrdom of some sort. The thing is, Berle was a pretty good actor when given the chance to demonstrate it. After his tv career wound down, he made a pretty heavy push to appear in films, usually only landing supporting parts. But that’s okay, he does enough scenery chewing in this movie for fifteen films.

Far Be It From Me to Disturb Your Pool Game, But Do Me a Favor: If You Get Near a Movie, Shoot It

Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

I wanted to hate on Sinatra far more than this, believe me, but to my astonishment, when I went down his list of film credits, what I saw was mostly a lot of excellent movies, about half of them musicals and half of them dramas. But there’s plenty to hate about these two films. In fact, it might plausibly said that the Rat Pack ethic is what spawned nearly every other bad film on this list. Oceans 11 broke the sound barrier in terms of not supplying any of the ingredients of a good movie, under the presumption that the documentary presence of the film’s stars would be more than sufficient. The entirety of its breathtakingly amoral plot is that its “heroes” (Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) rob five major Las Vegas casinos. That is the WHOLE plot. No one has moral misgivings. No one gets caught. There are no consequences. It’s a movie for moral bankrupts and sociopaths. While the movie was being shot, the stars picked up extra dough performing in the casinos at night, and did a lot of drinking, gambling, and womanizing both on camera and off. That is the extent of the thing. I cannot tell you how much I despise this lazy, self-indulgent non-movie. I’ve not bothered watching the remake or its sequels on the assumption that they operate on the same plane. I can’t imagine why anyone would watch it.

Robin and the 7 Hoods gets on my nerves for different reasons. By contrast, this one has a plot, but it irritates because of its meta relationship to the real life stars. It seems to owe something to Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which Sinatra was to star in but walked out of, and both of them build on Guys and Dolls. Peter Falk appeared in both Robin and the 7 Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. The former film also has Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby (replacing Lawford, who was now banned from the Rat Pack) and Edward G. Robinson. This film galls especially as an exercise in what I call “hoodlum inoculation”. Sinatra, a guy with a thousand REAL Mafia ties, overplays a cute, cuddly, stereotyped “gangster” in order to prove that he really isn’t one in real life. That’s what every minute of the film feels like to me. Let’s make this fantasy as unrealistic as possible; let’s make organized crime appear as unbelievable as we can. I find myself particularly irritated by the hoodlum voices they all (particularly Sinatra and Peter Falk use) They don’t HAVE to use those voices. They are perfectly believable as gangsters with their natural voices.

Are there Rat Pack movies I like? Yes! Some Came RunningSergeants Three and Four for Texas are all pretty palatable because the actors are playing characters, not demanding that you bask in the sunshine of their existence.

What the Hell is This Shit?

Jerry Lewis in the late 1960s

Staking out my position on Lewis’s movies is always very difficult (not that anyone cares!) The majority of people outright hate him and dismiss him out of hand. That’s not me. I almost always find him enormously interesting, though almost always equally mortifying and irritating. And while I think it can be plausibly said that ALL of his film performances and outings as a director are self-indulgent to put it mildly, new horizons were broached between the years 1966 and 1972.

To be fair, when Lewis entered his 40s and middle age, he was confronted with a serious problem. How to age his character, who was essentially an adolescent? About half of the films of this period deal with it by abandoning the slapstick character altogether. Unfortunately, the other Jerry, the “real” Jerry comes off as an unlikable creep, essentially variations on Buddy Love, his jerky alter ego from The Nutty Professor. So there are all these essentially unwatchable “sophisticated adult” comedies: Boing, Boing (1965); Three on a Couch (1966); Way, Way Out (1966) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) which appeal to almost nobody. And then there are other ones like The Big Mouth (1967), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front (1969), where he reverts to form a bit more as a performer but is now 42 years old. The latter one breaks new frontiers of cinematic self-indulgence. I seem to recall one scene where he holds the same shot for many, many minutes while he does a seemingly endless number of double-takes — perhaps 15. (That is a lot of double takes). Of course, none of us has yet seen what is reported to be his masterpiece of self-indulgence, his sad-clown-in-a-concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), although, as we reported here, there is now hope that we will see it in our lifetimes. He retired from directing for a time, but not before giving us:

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

Well, Jerry never did get back together with Dean for a film, but he did collaborate with his fellow Rat Packers Sammy and Peter for a pair of pictures. I wrote about those unseemly spectacles here. 

O, To Participate in Your Own Deification

Viva Knievel (1977)

I wrote about daredevil Evil Knievel and his massive influence on American popular culture in the 1970s here. Viva Knievel is a bizarre exercise in megalomania in which Knievel plays HIMSELF as a crime-solving superhero who also clears up people’s personal problems and heals a crippled child while giving out action figures of himself and doing death-defying motorcycle jumps. At the climax, he gives an anti-drug speech to kids in which he swears (yes, uses curse words) several times. When the film was in the can, Knievel and his cronies beat the hell out of its promoter with an aluminum baseball bat, and that hurt the film somewhat at the box office.

The Greatest (1977)

The Greatest goes Viva Knievel one better by being an “autobiography” of its star Muhammad Ali — starring Ali, playing himself. Once you’ve done that, what is there left to do?

Everything the World Hates About America All in One Piece of Art

Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), et al.

Burt Reynolds was America’s top box office star for at least part of the 1970s, and did he let it go to his head? Nah! The thing is, he has proven himself a good actor on many an occasion when he puts his head and heart into it. And it’s kind of hard (for me anyway) to pinpoint precisely when he went completely bad. There are many films in which he plays good ol’ boys or football players or the like, and they’re not all bad. The catalyst for descent appears to have been Hal Needham.

Hal Needham had been the stunt coordinator on several Reynolds pictures: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and — most relevantly — W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975). In 1977, he was finally given the keys to the vehicle as it were and was allowed to direct Smokey and the Bandit, which became a monster hit. Now, in no way, shape or form do I object to a stunt man becoming a movie director on principle. No true lover of silent comedies ever could. In the silent days, that very transition happened all the time, the most natural thing in the world. Certainly it’s as natural as a choreographer becoming a film director and that happens frequently, too. Now, I really liked both W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and Smokey and the Bandit when I was a kid, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re both the same movie. Almost character for character, plot point by plot point. It’s just that the latter film was bigger and splashier, and got all the publicity and box office. And that’s fine. That’s how most directors start out, imitating a previous movie. The problem is that then he went on to lots of other movies.

For me, the Cannonball Run movies are the nadir. They make Oceans 11 look a like a towering mountain of integrity. Both the Cannonball Run movies are essentially just a bunch of stars (some big, most of them minor, people who were known for being on a sit com for a year or two, ten or twenty years prior) driving in an illegal cross country car race and having mishaps along the way. The “characters” are somewhere on the order of the “characters” teenagers play in the school talent show, or guests play when they show up to a Halloween party. I would tell you who’s in it and what they do, but it’s too embarrassing. (But I will take this opportunity to point out Jamie Farr in the Arabian Oil Sheik costume in the poster above). And Cannonball Run II is worse by an order of magnitude. They should have called it Cannonball Run to the 10th Power.  

Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)

Tops as a songwriter, musician and singer, Paul McCartney was easily the worst actor of the four Beatles, trailing behind the other three by a good distance. He also had a fairly dismal track record as a cinematic mastermind (the critical disasters Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be were both his ideas and were produced largely under his supervision). Still…when there’s no one around to tell you you can’t do something…I guess you go ahead and do it. Especially when you’re one of the richest men in the world. He wrote the screenplay for Broad Street himself, a film in which he plays himself (poorly) and nothing happens except that the master tapes for his next album are lost or stolen, and he doesn’t precisely look for them, or track them down so much as occasionally wonder what happened to them. There are lots of songs, but in between songs this is all that happens.

I Want to Punch This

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis seems to have gotten the mistaken idea from the success of Moonlighting that he could make an entire movie out of fourth wall breaking asides, ad libs, smug self-referential in-jokes and getting bonked on the head. It is relentlessly irritating, and was co-written by Willis. Willis plays the titular safecracker. Danny Aiello is his equally unendurable sidekick. Skip it! Even skip reading any description of it.

Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997)

High and giddy off the smash success of Dances with Wolves, the now all-powerful Kevin Costner seized his newfound power to play a self-glorifying savior figure in no less than two big budget post-apocalyptic action films — and to direct both of the sprawling, expensive messes himself. The photo above was carefully chosen: the end of The Postman depicts a town full of people gazing worshipfully at a statue of Kevin Costner. He seems somewhat chastened by the failure of these films. While he continued to produce his own vehicles, he only directed one more, the much less ambitious and better realized western Open Range (2003).

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Look at that poster. “The Voice, the Passion, the Confidence”? “The chutzpah” is more like. Look at how that woman is gazing at him! Kevin Spacey himself is obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless, so it kind of stands to reason that it would be his life’s ambition to play the obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless Bobby Darin. Leaving aside the mean criticism that he’s too old for the part, it’s simply torture to watch Spacey do all these smug, sickening musical numbers in between the endless paint-by-numbers bio-pic scenes about the ups and downs of a rich singing star. But it’s really all on screen only so that we can know that Kevin Spacey can sing — it’s evident in every frame.

Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. And lots and lots of Disney. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 2)

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

How’s this for reverb feedback circularity?

mdd speaks

brickTrav S.D., who is one of the great Renaissance men of contemporary indie theater (actor, composer, author, playwright, critic, director, impresario, et al), recently posted the following on Facebook (emphasis mine):

I have a large family of friends I have been collaborating with on theatre for close to 20 years. I think of them as my “Brick” friends (after the Brick theater in Williamsburg), and we tend to call ourselves that, although we all work in dozens of locations besides the Brick, many of us were already collaborating years before the Brick was even born, and most of us work with other people in other settings, and so forth. For example, though I just did a play there, it had been at least a half-dozen years since I had last done so. Still, no matter where any of us go the Brick is “home”, and it is what…

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