Stars of Vaudeville #1008: Marie Loftus

Posted in British Music Hall, Irish, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Variety Theatre, Women with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by travsd


 Marie Loftus (1857-1940) was known as the “Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls” . Born in Glasgow to Irish parents, she grew up near the Scotia Music Hall, which is where she began dancing as a young girl. As a singing single she first appeared at Brown’s Royal Music Hall by age 17. Within three years she had made it to London. Loftus possessed a stout, buxom figure which was of a sort very much in vogue with Victorian audiences at the time. Like many music hall singers, her repertoire contained suggestive material that some frowned upon. But she remained popular in her native Glasgow, even as she became a national star on the London stages, both in music hall and as a Principal Boy in Pantomime. Her fame became international when she began to tour American vaudeville and the halls of South Africa. By the 1890s she was earning 100 pounds a week. Her daughter Cissie Loftus (1876-1943) would prove just as famous.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.

The Horror and Sci Fi of Steven Spielberg

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by travsd

As TCM is screening Jaws and its sequels tonight I thought it would be interesting to look at Steven Spielberg’s work in horror, fantasy and science fiction in isolation. As I opined in my earlier post, though Spielberg makes films in other genres, such as war films, historical dramas and the like, with a couple of notable exceptions, his strongest suit remains the one he started out in. This survey will look at both his television and film work, and works he produced as well as ones he directed. This is my second in a series of posts about horror films by mainstream New Hollywood directors not normally regarded as “horror directors”. The first was about John Landis. I am also planning similar ones about Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. (If I don’t get to them this year, look for them next October!)


Night Gallery episodes (1969-1971)

Two of Spielberg’s earliest directorial credits were on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, less horror per se than stories in the writer’s patented “weird tales with an O. Henry twist” tradition. Amazingly, the 21 year old Spielberg’s first professional directorial assignment was “Eyes”, a segment in the 1969 Night Gallery feature length pilot starring none other than Joan Crawford as an evil, rich blind woman who pays a desperate gambler (Tom Bosley) for his ocular organs (she’s blackmailed a doctor into performing the unsavory operation). The rub is that she will only enjoy sight temporarily (she’s that evil) and the twist is that when she opens her new eyes after the operation it is evening — in the middle of a power black-out.

Two years later, Spielberg was asked back to direct a second episode, entitled “Make Me Laugh”. This one is a riff on the Midas myth. Godfrey Cambridge is a comedian who wishes for the unfailing gift of making people laugh. A swami (Jackie Vernon) gives him more than he bargained for. Now no one will stop laughing at whatever he says, even when he’s serious! Tom Bosley plays his agent, and Al Lewis a club owner. Both these episodes were penned by Serling himself. Spielberg’s gratitude for his career having been launched in such a fortuitous manner would be evident in his tributes Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazing Stories a decade later.


L.A. 2017 (1971)

Spielberg’s first feature length script was presented as an episode of the series The Name of the Game. It is set in a then-future Los Angeles where everyone lives underground due to air pollution, and America is now a fascist-corporate state where the police are all psychiatrists. The cast includes numerous old-guard Hollywood vets, including Gene Barry, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart and Joan Crawford. We’ll be returning to the subject of this telefilm in a couple of months for reasons that should be obvious from the film’s title.


Duel (1971)

Widely regarded as Spielberg’s first “masterpiece”, one of the best tv-movies of all time, and the film that put Spielberg on the map. Duel was an ABC Movie of the Week written by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Shrinking Man, The Night Stalker, numerous Roger Corman collaborations, as well as a Twilight Zone vet).  It concerns a motorist (Dennis Weaver) who is being run down by a malevolent trailer truck driver on an isolated stretch of desert highway. The driver is never shown, so the truck itself begins to take on an identity like some sort of Moby Dick like predatory creature animated by the devil himself, an impression magnified by the psychological toll the ordeal begins to take on Weaver. The streamlined shape of this telefilm is especially impressive. It is all harrowing action, just a ride from beginning to end, paving the way for much of Spielberg’s later work.


Something Evil (1972)

I have informally retitled this early telefilm Something’s Missing. At this stage of his career Spielberg was still just a journeyman tv director. While Duel happens to be pretty great, Something Evil is more in line with a lot of his early work — straightforward storytelling with a few artistic touches here and there. He is struggling with a not-very-compelling story, and one that was done to death in the early 70s: a family moves into a house that is inhabited by the devil. This one is helped by an interesting angle: it is set in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and the events revolve around what happens when you tamper with those painted witch pentacles that the Pennsylvania Dutch put on barns to ward off evil. And it is likewise made more watchable by a cast that includes Darren McGavin (who’d done The Night Stalker pilot the year before, though the series wouldn’t be launched until 1974, Sandy Dennis, Johnny Whitaker (fresh off of Family Affair), Ralph Bellamy, and Jeff Corey as the obligatory creepy old codger and caretaker. Much that happens is “unseen”, possibly in Sandy Dennis’s mind, and that gets to be tiresome after a while, but there are also scenes where those unseen forces move stuff around, anticipating the terrific scene before the toddler is abducted in Close Encounters. And there’s lots of early mother-child stuff that register as the beginnings of Spielberg’s career-long thematic preoccupation with that theme.


Jaws (1975)

As we wrote in our earlier post, we consider this Spielberg’s best movie bar none. Though it doesn’t seem to often be characterized as such nowadays (probably because Spielberg rapidly became known as an all-around Hollywood auteur), Jaws is a straight-up horror film and was certainly marketed and received as such when it came out. Unlike most graphic horror movies of its day (or any day, really), it is extraordinarily strong on character. The movie would have already been extremely effective as an amusement park ride strictly on how it is shot, edited and scored. That’s basically what people were lining up to buy tickets for in 1975 — the bloody spectacle of seeing people get gobbled up by a great white shark. But what gives Jaws its real staying power as a classic are the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw and (the sometimes neglected but very important) Murray Hamilton (the mayor). People quote lines from the film. Shaw’s performance will intrigue me to the end of my days — he put a LOT into this role. Not just the film’s most harrowing scene where he is unable to stop himself from slowly sliding into the shark’s open mouth and then shrieks in a way that we imagine is almost TOO realistic…but also subtler stuff, like his drunken monologue about his ordeal after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And above all, Spielberg’s genius in making the shark a “character” (I believe the robot’s nickname was “Bruce”). Most “animals gone wild” films fail on multiple levels. This one succeeds superlatively, both as horror and as a story about people.


Transmuting fear to wonder

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 

As a UFO buff in my childhood, I was obsessed with this movie when it came out. Its brilliance is in the turning on its head the old 50s “alien invaders from outer space” genre, and plugging it into 70s concerns. While the flying saucers thrill us with fear for most of the movie, that feeling gets transmuted to innocence and wonder by the end, and in essence paranoia and secrecy (by the government authorities) becomes the enemy. So many chilling moments in the film. Richard Dreyfus alone on a country road being “measured” or “read” by the aliens. That terrifying scene in Melinda Dillon’s house when the toys and appliances come to life and despite her best efforts her baby is kidnapped. The scene where the dude who is running with them to Devil’s Tower gets gassed. And the then-revolutionary realization of the aliens, obviously informed by modern eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have encountered aliens, making it seem, in an odd way “realistic”.


Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels (1981, etc) 

Raiders is obviously a tribute to the old mystery and adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s, a form which was closely related to horror. In fact, almost all of the classic horror actors also starred in these kind of mystery and suspense pictures, usually as the villains. Raiders gives us scares both natural (spiders, snakes, headhunters, Nazis) and supernatural (mummies, ghosts and an Angel of Death with the power to melt the faces of villains and turn his henchmen to dust). Temple of Doom has black magic and crocodiles. The Last Crusade, like Raiders has Nazis and booby traps, but also the magical Holy Grail. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the titular telepathic item, from the head of an alien, a nuclear bomb, and a hill of fire ants.


E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

The outlines of this film certainly make it a science fiction story, but in reality it’s too warm and fuzzy to be much but a kid’s movie, though widely regarded as a classic one. I was much disappointed to discover that though when I saw it upon its first release. Though it has some thrills in the early beats, ultimately it’s a “family film”, which of course is perfectly valid if you like that sort of thing.


Poltergeist (1982)

This one was produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, though by all accounts (and it seems evident from the final product) Spielberg maintained an iron grip on the production, essentially directing the thing himself by making Hooper do everything he wanted.  With its fetishization of suburban living it looks like a Spielberg film. As with E.T., the promising title produced inevitable disappointment in me. I was a ghost buff. A film with the ballsy name Poltergeist damn well better be the archetypical poltergeist tale, which this one is anything but.  Your basic poltergeist yarn centers on an unhappy, awkward adolescent, whose violent energy attracts and fuels mischievous spirits who perform what are basically acts of vandalism. The one scene in the film that reminded me of that is the memorable scene where the kitchen furniture moves around of its own accord. But the rest of the movie is cockamamie — an exercise in ineffective excess and dumb ideas. It’s TOO Much. Ghosts in the tv. Some sort of dimensional door in the closet. An evil tree. An evil clown doll. A mysterious psychic little person. The physical theft of children by whatever-this-is. I find none of it scary because its just a bunch of claptrap and nonsense not rooted in anything. However, I do find the movie interesting and effective in a completely different way — as satire. It’s very rewarding to watch nowadays from that perspective. There is much about Reagan’s America here. Selfishness and privilege, and ultimately greed. The characters are all suffering because the subdivision was built on graves. The spectacle of JoBeth Williams dumped into a flooded basement full of muddy corpses is indeed one of the most powerful images in the film, both as satire and as horror.


Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Co-produced with John Landis, and co-directed with Landis and Joe Dante. Spielberg’s contribution to this tribute to Rod Serling’s landmark tv series is a predictably warm and fuzzy tale of senior citizens longing for youth called “Kick the Can”. It was based on an episode from the original series.


Gremlins (1983)

Spielberg was executive producer of this silliness, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante. I’ve never been a fan, it’s too dumb to be scary and yet I wouldn’t describe it as funny either. Like Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist though it shares an obsession with suburban tract housing.


Amazing Stories (1985-1987)

I LOVED this tv series, created and executive produced by Spielberg. Every Sunday, I would annoy my family by switching the tv audio settings to “stereo” so it would play through the speakers for maximum aesthetic impact. Spielberg came up with most of the story ideas himself, and the episodes were directed by him and other major directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Clark, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, DannyDeVito, Tobe Hooper and Paul Bartel. It was thrilling to have something so high quality on network television. Like all such “weird tales” anthology shows, some episodes are horror, some fantasy or science fiction, some merely have an ironic twist.


Arachnophobia (1990)

Spielberg was executive producer of this enjoyable bug movie, starring hundreds of large, deadly spiders and Jeff Daniels as a small town doctor who suffers from the titular condition. Much smarter and more rollicking than this kind of movie usually is.


Jurassic Park and sequels (1993, etc) 

The original Jurassic Park is near the top of my favorite Spielberg films, and is easily the king (the T Rex, if you will) of all “Lost World Dinosaur” movies, a minor horror subgenre that goes back to the days of the silents. This is thanks to the relentless research and impeccable realism of the special effects, and (as with Jaws) the three dimensional characters. Nearly every moment in this film is riveting and memorable, and many are terrifying. Each succeeding sequel gives diminishing returns of course, which is not so very unusual.


The Haunting (1999)

Spielberg executive produced this widely panned remake of the 1963 Robert Wise film based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. Starring Liam Neeson as a scientist who invites several people (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson) to a haunted castle under the pretense of a “sleep study” — which turns out to be a fear study. But soon Neeson’s contrived spookery gets overwhelmed by ACTUAL spookery since the house is really haunted. As an added bonus — the caretakers are Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern. 

Like "The Wizard of Oz", but grim and cheerless!

Like “The Wizard of Oz”, but grim and cheerless!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

An interesting experiment, half Stanley Kubrick and half Steven Spielberg, and all cold and lifeless. I only saw it the once, when it came out, but I found it so bleak and black, visually impressive but with nothing really to latch on to, not just for comfort, but at all.


Minority Report (2002)

Based on Philip K. Dick material, and like much of hiss writing, is less science fiction and more like a futuristic mystery/crime story. Here Tom Cruise is a detective who has been accused by two out of a committee of three psychics of committing a murder in the future. He escapes in order to find the third psychic (who provided the titular report) and clear his name. While it’s full of interesting technology, neither the story nor the star are my cup of tea at all.


War of the Worlds (2005)

I thought this movie was incredible and that Spielberg nearly achieved the impossible — out-doing the original 1953 screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which is one of my favorite movies. Spielberg’s vision of the alien craft, the sound they make, their rays, their effect on humans, the behavior of crowds, are all riveting. I especially loved the first half of this movie; I’ll undoubtedly watch it many more times. What ultimately spoils it for me is the casting of the soulless cipher Tom Cruise as the star, and a screenplay with so much toxic energy in it. It’s enough that people have to battle aliens. I detest the current Hollywood Orthodoxy that every movie needs to carry the additional baggage of patching up families at the same time they save the planet or whatever.


Super 8 (2011)

Spielberg co-produced (co-wrote the story for) this J.J. Abrams film, which is funny, because it is such a tribute to both Close Encounters and E.T. I especially loved it because in the same year the film is set (1979) my friends and I (the same age as the kids in the film and the same age as Abrams) made a Super 8 feature movie of our own. (Ours was a James Bond style spy story). The alien aspect was less interesting to me, but still gave me nostalgic feelings due to the obvious relationship to the aforementioned films.

Jurassic World (2015) was executive produced by Spielberg, and his most recent relevant credit. He also has announced films out through the end of the decade, although most of them look like bullshitty sequels. It has been over 20 years since his last horror masterpiece (Jurassic Park) and a decade since his last horror near-masterpiece (War of the Worlds). And while I very much enjoyed his recent historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I’d equally love to see if he can pull out at least one more mind-blowing thrill ride.

My First Collaborator

Posted in ME, My Family History on October 22, 2016 by travsd


My best friend from the ages of about six to twelve was a ginger-haired, wide eyed chap by the name of Bruce Goodness. The surname is an Anglicized translation; his real last name is LaBonte. He’s of French Canadian stock, and you could see it in his old man, a stocky guy with curly reddish hair and beard. You could just see old Billy wearing one of those wool stocking caps and snowshoes, laying lynx traps and saying things like “Ohoho, mon ami!” (Rhode Island has many inhabitants of Canuck ancestry, if I may use that un-p.c. term).

Me and Brucey were thick as thieves, with an intense, almost exclusive buddyhood born out of the fact we lived almost next door to each other, our yards separated by a wooded lot that became a mutual playground we transformed into great forests and jungles for our imaginative games. We built a lean-to out of saplings there. We re-fought the battles of World War II.

In recent years, it’s dawned on me how seminal an influence he was on my life. I’m not sure what I brought to the table. From my dad I certainly had been cultivated to have an enthusiasm for “Cowboys and Indians” and pioneer role play and the like. Hatchets and claw hammers and pocket knives were definitely elements of our “toy box” in a way that is probably nearly extinct among children today. And so the stuff I shared with him I associate with him and can’t know how much came from him, or if we cooked it up together, or if it was just what all kids were doing then. But it frequently seems to me that his was the driving force for our mutual enthusiasms; I found myself liking the things he already liked, and following his lead. Our games were largely driven by movies and television. We played cops and robbers constantly, but usually filtered through tv shows like Baretta and Starsky and Hutch. These games were enhanced immeasurably by walkie-talkie sets we got for Christmas. The Six Million Dollar Man was an obsession, as was Planet of the Apes. We shared enthusiasms for classic horror, comic books, Mad magazine, Wacky Packages, Evel Knievel, custom cars and motorcycles (largely by way of his dad, who worked on vehicles); and we were both very learned in all the cryptozoological pseudosciences (Big Foot, poltergeists, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, etc).

Things took a turn when we hit our tweens and began to discover music. My brother was a musician; Bruce’s cousin was in the legendary band the Young Adults (which I’ll be blogging about in a few days). My brother and Bruce’s cousin were friends. When we got to be around ten we realized that these associations were cool, and aspired to become musicians ourselves. We used to play his mom’s scratchy old Elvis singles, which seemed ancient to us but were only about 20 years old at the time. We’d play those and my K-tel records over and over trying to figure out the lyrics, and writing them down. From here, I would often write parody versions of the lyrics. Between this, and our own early attempts to draw our comic books and monsters and such, I can spot my first creative stirrings. He really was my first collaborator.

In junior high school and high school we grew apart. We were in literally NO classes together, and then I got interested in theatre and that pretty much became my focus for everything. But in retrospect now, I can see that so much that remains a focus of my work as an adult has been some sort of offshoot of stuff that fired up our imaginations as boys. Granted many of these obsessions are (or were) pretty common interests. But what if my best friend had been, I dunno, a macrame enthusiast instead? (That never would happened). Bruce went on to marry my high school steady’s cousin, also a close friend of mine in high school. I’m so happy to be back in touch with both of them. It makes me feel anchored, in a time and a place where often one feels one is danger of tumbling off into space like that unfortunate astronaut in 2001. It’s Bruce’s birthday today. Thanks for being in my life, old friend, both then and now.

Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: A Horror Grab Bag

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , on October 21, 2016 by travsd

Tonight on TCM, and into the wee hours of tomorrow, a continuation of their tidal wave of classic horror films for the Halloween season.


8:00pm (EST): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

This is easily the least of the three major classic Hollywood adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influential horror tale. Far better are the silent one with John Barrymore and the 1932 Frederic March version. Still, this one remains worth watching at least once, and may be seen as a kind of indispensable experiment. This is the Spencer Tracy “realistic” version, directed by Victor Fleming. The make-up is much more subdued, as is Tracy’s performance as Hyde. There is a sort of quiet menace about the character, but it doesn’t really possess the scenery chewing one wants and expects. Tracy is best in the early scenes, when we get to know and like Jekyll. The dinner table scene where he defends his work always stands out in my mind. After the opening scenes, the screenplay clings VERY closely to the 1932 version, at times, almost like they were filming the same script, scene by scene. An unrecognizable Lana Turner plays Jekyll’s nondescript fiancé. Donald Crisp is her father (one of the film’s better elements). Ingrid Bergman is horrible as a dance hall girl, with her combination Swedish-Cockney accent. And silent film comedian Billy Bevan is a lovable cop!


10:00pm (EST): Eyes Without a Face (1960)

A French/Italian co-production about a mad plastic surgeon who steals the faces of kidnapped women in order to graft them onto the face of his daughter, whose face was destroyed in an accident. The titular faceless faces are masks, which the women wear to hide the atrocities beneath. That’s the cool part but it wears thin quickly. It sounds more exciting than it plays out.


11:45pm (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.


1:15am (EST): Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)

A Technicolor 3-D remake of  The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) done very much in the style of House of Wax (1953), with Karl Malden as the villain. It’s all highly silly — the mechanism that controls the ape is a ringing bell on a bracelet…and the sound designer feels compelled to include that noise in every scene in which the bracelet is present, which is most of the scenes in the movie.


2:45am (EST): Macabre (1958)

William Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.


4:00am (EST): The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

In this Monogram cheapie, Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who sends poisoned orchids to brides on their wedding day so he can steal their mysterious virgin essence of youth and beauty, and transplant it to his wife!  I’d say that this one marks a new low for him, but then he’d already made The Devil Bat! On the other hand, at least The Devil Bat has a Devil Bat! And fortunately that one’s playing as well! (see below)


5:15am (EST): The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Hilarious low budget film about a scientist who performs gruesome Frankensteinian experiments. One day he is riding with his girlfriend in the car and they get into an accident. She dies but he carries her head home in a bag and keeps it alive with tubes. Then he goes looking for a woman to kill so he can put his girlfriend’s head on it. Several great scenes with burlesque dancers, beauty pageants, and finally an art model makes the “cut”. Meanwhile his girlfriend is not at all grateful about having been kept alive. She sits there in a muffin pan and rolls her eyes and conspires with Whatever’s Behind That Locked Door (apparently an earlier failed experiment). I’ll tell ya what’s behind that locked door! It’s Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant! 


6:45am (EST): The Killer Shrews (1959)

Surprisingly, this one is not an AIP/ Roger Corman production. It would make for a perfect double feature with Night of the Lepus, but for the fact that no one would sit still for two movies like this. The plot: a supply boat puts in on an island where a scientist has been experimenting with a serum that would shrink humans (in order to solve world hunger). Instead, he winds up growing shrews, and the shrews get out of hand. Played by puppets and dogs in costumes, the giant shrews look silly indeed.


8:00am (EST): The Devil Bat (1940)

This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.


9:15am (EST) The Seventh Victim (1943)

A teenager looks for her missing sister/ guardian and her detective work leads to a Satanic cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. Features Kim Hunter and  a pre-Beaver Hugh Beaumont. The film doesn’t go as far into superstition as it ought to to make it interesting and so does not scare us. Feels more like a noir, a melodrama or a spy thriller than horror. The Satanists seem more like Nazis, just some kind of a secret group of callous, plotting people. At the climax they try to coerce the missing sister into committing suicide but she won’t. Later she does, but then only because she wants to — not because she is being forced to. On the other hand, check out the sister’s rad, Bohemian haircut, a sort of Betty Paige/ Morticia Addams mash-up.


Reviving the Genius of Zora Neale Hurston

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME, PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by travsd


I first encountered the work of writer/ anthropologist/ folk-lorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in the early 1990s when I was researching voodoo and the blues (thank you, New York Public Library). Her published fieldwork from the 1920s and ’30s is amazing, not just by reason of WHAT she captured for all time, African American byways that like all folk culture are ever in danger of dissolving in the face of modernity, but HOW she reported it. She brought an artist’s instinct to the table. She knew what was important, what would engage and entertain and move us, and how to shape it and present it. This gift would also inform her fiction, which she is better known for today, and which I finally read and enjoyed over the past few months.

The occasion for that recent reading binge was preparation for this feature in this week’s Villager, about the New Federal Theatre’s new revival of Laurence Holder’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography. I was thrilled to get interview both Holder and legendary director Woodie King Jr. (founder of the New Federal Theatre) for the story. The show opened last night, and I can’t wait to see it. For my feature in The Villager go here, and for my earlier tribute to Hurston on Travalanche go here.

Charley Chase: The Comedy of Embarrassment

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd


Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

When Charley Chase (born this day in 1893) arrived at the Hal Roach studios to become one the top Hollywood comedians of the 1920s, he already boasted an impressive resume. Chase had begun performing in vaudeville when still a teenager in his native Baltimore, doing Irish monologues, songs and dances. His travels then took him west, and he broke into movies at Universal Studios before moving to Mack Sennett’s Keystone in 1914. You can see the 21 year old (then still billed as Charles Parrott) in films like His New Profession, Fatty’s Suitless Day, and Love, Loot and Crash. Unlike, say, Harold Lloyd who played similar young man roles at Keystone around the same time, Chase makes an impression in his early films. He’s funny and you notice him. He was also in a hurry. The ambitious young man quickly moved up to assistant directing; by 1916 he was already helming his own movies for Sennett. Throughout the late teens and the beginning of the twenties he was building a reputation as a director, working with the likes of Billy West, Lloyd Hamilton and Carter de Haven.

During a hitch at Fox in 1917 he got his younger brother James employment there as an actor. James went to work for Roach before Charley did, joining the company in 1918 to play supporting roles for Harold Lloyd, Hank Mann, and others. By 1922, he was beginning to star in his own shorts under the name Paul Parrott. While James (Paul) was turning out a series of solid comedies, Charley had been hired by the studio in 1921 to direct a series of shorts starring Snub Pollard.  The following he oversaw the creation of the long-running Our Gang series.

In 1923 and 1924, the Parrott Brothers’ roles began to be reversed, with James spending more time behind the camera, and Charley relinquishing his role as Roach’s comedy supervisor to go in front of the camera as a star. And Chase was that: one of the most beloved stars of comedy shorts clear through the 1930s.

Even more than Lloyd (who left Roach in 1924 to star in features) Chase was to personify what the Roach aesthetic was all about. If Mack Sennett’s humor had been all about grotesque clowning, fake mustaches, and battered top hats, the Roach lot brought a new aesthetic of realism. And if Lloyd’s “Boy with the Glasses” had seemed normal compared to those antics, Chase’s character was even more recognizable as a real-life human being, lacking even the bookworm’s horn-rims and mock-heroic climaxes. His comedies have more in common with modern sit-coms than with knockabout or pantomime.


Sons of the Desert

Granted, he was blessed with good comedy “equipment”. With his ram-rod posture and prissy face he stood out; that’s what had made him memorable even in small Keystone roles. But he also wore a basic business suit and combed his hair in a fashionable cut like a lot of people in his audience. The Twenties were a boom time in America; the new middle class was exploding. Chase represented a different slice of the public than Sennett’s blue collar buffoons. Though he had come from straitened circumstances himself (his father died when he was 16, leaving the family penniless) Chase almost never played farmers, plumbers or fry cooks. His characters tend to be bank clerks, office assistants and middle managers. As such, he generally had a stake in the community. Rather than going around causing trouble, his comedy was about trying to prevent it. In a Charley Chase film life often seems like a stream of unfortunate coincidences designed primarily to embarrass, incriminate, or otherwise inconvenience Chase in his bid to be a good solid citizen. Sometimes he gets humor from trying to put on a brave face and maintain appearances while this happens; other times he makes us laugh by blowing his stack. He was a little uptight; it could go either way — forced cheer or a blowing of the gasket. But what made him interesting was his contradictions. He possessed an unusual mix of grace, polish and awkwardness. Often he seems a “good time Charley”, striving to be the convivial life of the party (indeed that’s what he plays in his best remembered role, the drunken Shriner in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert). But only to the extent that such behavior would make him popular around the office.

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy (1925) is typical of the “embarrassment” formula. Charley’s jealous wife (Katherine Grant) thinks he is cheating. He is most definitely not doing so but keeps coincidentally winding up in compromising positions with other women, being seen with them at just the right (wrong) moment. Forgotten Sweeties (1927) kind of flips that idea. He and his wife move into the same building where his old flame and her new husband now reside. Again, he keeps accidentally winding up in incriminating positions with the old girlfriend (and having to avoid her new husband so he won’t get the hell beat out of him).

Sometimes his compulsion to preserve “normality” seems less forgivable. In His Wooden Wedding (1925) a series of freak coincidences combine to convince him that his fiancé has a wooden leg. In a state of shock, he jilts her at the altar. We dislike him for this at first, but he redeems himself later by getting drunk and suicidal and declaring that she is “the greatest little woman in the world”.

Mighty Like a Moose

Mighty Like a Moose (1926) 

Chase is all about appearances. Mighty Like a Moose (1926) is a sort of cross between The Gift of the Magi and Nip and Tuck. Both spouses get their turn to be mortified. Charley is a husband with a hilariously prominent pair of choppers—he looks kind of like Walt Disney’s “Goofy”. His wife (Vivien Oakland) has a nose as big as Lassie’s. Unbeknownst to each other, they each go out and get reconstructive surgery. Whereupon they meet each other and start flirting, not realizing that each is their actual spouse. It’s kind of like a cartoon. So what, if in the real world you have bruises and bandages after rhinoplasty and would most certainly recognize your own spouse whatever minor alterations have been made? Chase’s films are filled with similarly implausible episodes. You just have to go with it. For example, Limousine Love (1928) treats us to the deliciously far-fetched situation of a naked woman stepping into the backseat of Charley’s car to hide out while her clothes are drying. He doesn’t see her back there, and he is on the way to his wedding…

The universe depicted is one in which each next event will always be the thing Charley least wants to happen. The natural extension of that is to create gags that are not only unwelcome to Charley’s character but are so very unexpected they call attention to themselves purely for the entertainment of the audience. Chase’s films are often noted for such moments, which stretch believability past the breaking point and get us laughing at the refreshing audacity of their vision.


One of the most famous of these is in All Wet (1925), in which his car gets stuck in a mud puddle so deep that Chase has to dive under the water like a frogman to repair the damage. (He would later revive this scene in the 1933 talkie Fallen Arches.) Bromo and Juliet (1926) has the unforgettable scene where he is on his way to his girlfriend’s amateur theatrical dressed as Romeo. His tights are stuffed with sponges to make him look muscular, and he accidentally walks through a field of active lawn sprinklers, making his legs swell up into a pair of lumpy corn dogs. In Fluttering Hearts (1927) he pretends a department store mannequin is his drunken date so he can access to a speakeasy. Later the girl he is wooing shows up and puts on the mannequin’s clothes, and Charley carries her out of the joint instead of the dummy, never noticing that she’s human.

Roach had started Chase off in a series one-reelers wherein he was usually billed as “Jimmy Jump”. A few months into the series, Leo McCarey (who, like Frank Capra had gotten his start with Roach writing gags for Our Gang) began directing many of Chase’s films. They expanded to two-reelers and that’s when the series really began to take off. You can see his distinctive mark in a film like Sittin’ Pretty (1924) which is famous for containing an early version of the “mirror scene” McCarey would later revive for the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.


Chase made out just as well in the sound era as he had in silents, his mellifluous voice suiting his comedy style perfectly. Apart from Modern Love, a half-silent/ half talkie he made for Universal in 1929, he never did properly crack features. But he continued to star in and direct comedy shorts for Roach and Columbia throughout the 1930s. Many made use of his pleasant singing voice and burgeoning songwriting talents. Not only did he star in such minor classics as Southern Exposure (1935) and Teachers Pest (1938), but he also was to direct some of the best films starring The Three Stooges. Sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1940, one year after the drug related death of his brother.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

The Comedies of Bela Lugosi

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd

What madness that I didn’t think of this post sooner! (And I confess someone else inadvertently gave me the idea). We’ve done many posts about the great Hungarian-American thespian Bela Lugosi, including this biographical piece, and this one covering most of his horror and mystery films, which is what he is best known for. But Lugosi also was very useful in comedies — mostly spook comedies I’ll grant you, but some of them were more conventional ones in which he usually played the villain. The guy was a good sport, and he is always a welcome presence in classic comedy.


50 Million Frenchmen (1931)

In this adaptation of the 1929 Broadway musical, the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson play detectives hired to foil William Gaxton in his wager than he can make time with the hard-to-get Claudia Dell, strictly on charm. At a certain point Olsen steals the clothes and identity of Orizon the Magician (Lugosi) in order to keep tabs on their elusive quarry.


Broadminded (1931)

Insane! A terrific, zany Joe E. Brown comedy, directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by the team of Kalmar and Ruby. Brown plays a wild party hound whose uncle assigns him to take care of his cousin (played by William Collier Jr. ) and keep him out of trouble. Their instructions are to get out of New York and no gambling, carousing or women. They head to California, driving cross country and become embroiled in a feud with a nasty man (Lugosi) at a diner. He steals their car and becomes their bitter enemy, during their cross country drive.


International House (1933)

Directed by Eddie Sutherland, International House is essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

Lugosi plays an evil Russian spy out to steal the invention. The rest of the cast includes Franklin Pangborn as the flustered hotel manager; George Burns and Gracie Allen as a doctor and nurse; and guests W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), and Stuart Erwin; and entertainers Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.


Gift of Gab (1934)

This would be a better remembered comedy if someone funnier than Edmund Lowe were its star. Karl Freund (better known for his horror) directed. Lowe plays a radio announcer who pride himself on his ability to sell anything to anyone. The all-star cast also includes Victor Moore, Gloria Stuart, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, Phil Baker, Chester Morris, Alice White, Boris Karloff — and Lugosi as “the French Apache dancer”.

The Gorilla (1939)

Largely a parody of The BatThe Bat concerns a cast of characters in an Old Dark House concerned about a threat from a mysterious murderer who signs his letters “The Gorilla”. To confuse matters, an actual gorilla (i.e., guy in a cheap gorilla suit) keeps wandering in and out of the mansion’s secret passageways. Directed by Allan Dwan, the all-star cast features the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Lugosi (as the butler), Anita Louise, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid), and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit. For this reason, if not other, this movie should be seen at least once, if never again thereafter.


Ninotchka (1939)

Lugosi plays the harsh, unbending Commissar Razinin in Lubitch’s magical screwball comedy starring the great Greta Garbo as a Soviet spy who gets converted by the pleasures of Paris and and the charms of Melvyn Douglas. 


Spooks Run Wild (1941)

An East Side Kids comedy. The kids get stuck in the country on the way to summer camp, where they encounter the mysterious “Nardo” (Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant (Angelo Rossitto, from Freaks).


Ghosts on the Loose (1943)

A better than average spook comedy featuring the East Side Kids, directed by William Beaudine, and featuring Lugosi as a Nazi spy….but best of all, as the beautiful love interest — Ava Gardner, whom we are supposed to believe is Huntz Hall’s sister! That’s enough for three movies and it’s only an hour long! Them’s what I call moovies!


Zombies on Broadway (1945) 

Sheldon Leonard is a gangster who is opening a voodoo themed nightclub in Times Square. But he needs to have a REAL zombie on hand for the launch event or a Walter Winchell-esque radio columnist will trash the place. Alan Carney and Wally Brown are the publicists who caused this whole mishigas by promising an actual zombie in their press release. The gangster is not amused. He send them on a tramp steamer to Haiti, to bring back a real zombie — or else. After many spooky encounters, they actually manage to bring one back — It’s Carney, who has been zombified by a witch doctor back on the island. (Lugosi plays the mad scientist who makes zombies). Anyway, ironically Carney reverts to himself just before the gangster sees him, causing yet another crisis.  But the boys manage to fake it and it all turns out alright.


Genius at Work (1946)

Well, now. I thought’s seen every RKO comedy starring the team of  Carney and Brown, but to my sorrow I learn I am mistaken. Clearly a follow up to the previous year’s Zombies on Broadway, this one also features Lionel Atwill as a villain named The Cobra, in addition to Lugosi.


Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

This is the first of Abbott and Costello’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stroke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.


“It will stiffen you with laughter”

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit.  Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?)  When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.


Red Skelton Hour (1954)

Lugosi, Vampira and Lon Chaney Jr joined Red Skelton for horror themed comedy sketches on his tv variety show. Check out a clip from a sketch called “Dial B for Brush” on youtube here. 

Two years after this appearance, Lugosi was dead. Still ahead of course was the unintentional posthumous comedy Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)– but let us let the dead rest in peace.

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