Two Personal Appearances by Trav S.D. This Weekend

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, ME, Movies, My Shows, PLUGS, Silent Film, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , on May 26, 2017 by travsd

Hi! Two great chances to see me strut my stuff are in the offing for this weekend:

Trav at TNC in 2008

Saturday, May 27 at 7:20pm: I’ll be debuting ten minutes of my one-man vaudeville act in the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts in Theater for the New City’s Johnson Theatre. As part of the act I’ll present the world premiere of my anti-Trump hip-hop rap “Try Not To Say His Name” (I just violated the premise of the song!). Details, directions and info on the scores of other fine acts in the festival are here. 

Sunday, May 28 at 1:30pm: I’ll be giving a FREE talk on “Why 1917 (100 years ago) Was the Best Year in Silent Comedy” as part of the Empire State Center for the Book author’s event on Governor’s IslandAfter the brief talk, I’ll have copies of my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube there and we’ll be signing and selling them. To get there: Here’s how to get get to Governor’s Island.   Follow signs to Nolan Park, the event will be in House 4B, next door to the Commanding General’s House (look for the cannons). See you there, I hope! .

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

Just Carrie: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher by Lauren Milberger on #StarWars40th

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

 

Guest contributor Lauren Milberger’s previous pieces for Travalanche have included essays on Gracie Allen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today she observes the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars with this tribute to the recently-passed Carrie Fisher.

“I don’t want my life to imitate art. I want my life to be art.” — Carrie Fisher

The day after Carrie Fisher passed away in December, and for subsequent days afterward, letters still flooded the U.K. newspaper The Guardian where Fisher had an advice column. Not because these people had no idea the actor/writer had just died, but because they thought maybe in some way Fisher could still reach out to them, just as her character Princess Leia had reached out when she was in need: “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

After its premiere in 1977, Star Wars became a surprise hit that not only changed the way films were made and how we consume them, but went on to become a global phenomenon. Its creator George Lucas has even referred to it as a “religion,” and for many it holds a cult-like quality over their lives. And what may just be a film for some, has for millions become a beacon of joy passed down from generation to generation. For most, Carrie Fisher’s likeness as Princess Leia has been in their lives since childhood or early adulthood. Whether the film was the glue that brought their family together or solace for them in bad times, Carrie Fisher’s status as a pop culture icon is one draped in the nostalgia of youth, a line ofdemarcation between childhood .and adult responsibility. I have to digress for a moment and admit that I began writing this essay the day after Carrie Fisher died; but when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away that same night, I just put it away. This is in fact my third, as they say in show business, “pass” writing about Carrie Fisher since her passing. For many, 2016 was a hard year personally and creatively, one which included the loss of so many great artists who had touched our lives. Carrie Fisher was no different but her connection to our childhood as a symbol of, well, hope, gave the end of 2016 even more of a sting. I ended 2016 with a scratched cornea, meaning the year had both figuratively and literally broken me. But I see now that my writer’s block was in fact caused by how hard it was to write about Carrie Fisher in the past tense – so much of her life was lived in the vibrant, take-no-prisoners, present. Because Carrie Fisher to me, and to millions, was more than a pop culture princess. She was a wit, a mental health and addiction advocate, a script doctor, an advice giver, a raconteur … a bullshit barometer. (Not to mention Dog Lover and Coca-Cola connoisseur) Carrie was once asked who she would be without Princess Leia: “Just Carrie” she responded plainly. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate forty years of Star Wars without Carrie Fisher. But maybe the best way to celebrate this day is to remind people of her real impact beyond the stars. So in celebration today here is my new (and a little of the old) essay, I hope you enjoy it.

“You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

I was lucky enough to have met Carrie Fisher a few times and crossed paths (more on that later) with her on a few occasions over the last fifteen years (as a fan). For me, Carrie Fisher was an inspiration at a very formative time in my life, and is even more so now, after her passing. Now, I’m not talking about Star Wars. And listen, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with remembering Carrie Fisher for Star Wars – as our Princess Leia, and later, General Organa. Carrie herself knew (and repeated in interviews) that she knew that would always be the first– and probably the last – line in her obituary. As she said in public and in private to those who knew and worked with her (including actress Maria Thayer who recalled the same story on my podcast The Fordcast), Carrie Fisher’s impact as a strong female character set the mold – or at least the on-ramp – toward women in (what Carrie called) “all-boy fantasies.” Women who stood up for themselves and were able to take the blasters right out of the boy’s hands and save themselves. First impressions for children are important, as is equal representation, inspiring across the boards and sexes. In 2004, on the radio show Fresh Air, Carrie recounted how she had gone to her first fan convention and was shocked when a woman told her that Leia had inspired her to become a lawyer. What Leia was, and Carrie Fisher became,​ was a role model – embodying a visual example for men and women, girls and boys – of what a woman’s place in the world could be: working alongside the menfolk, not two steps behind. In the end, Carrie Fisher the person became an icon, as herself: a kickass woman who, like Leia, spoke up for her beliefs and demanded to be heard. For it was in real life that Carrie inspired people, especially women, not only for being outspoken, but also the notion of survival with a sense of humor. Yes, I spent many a day as a tiny tot watching Star Wars religiously, while simultaneously chewing on the tiny nose of her Empire Strikes Back action figure; but it was her words as a writer that I mentally chewed on, way past my teething stage. Look – the internet is lousy with far more qualified people than myself to talk about Star Wars, especially today of all days. I would just be another voice in the crowd, and I don’t need or like to do what has already been done. Carrie taught me that. After her death, I was warmed by how many journalists and social media users took the time to remember Carrie Fisher the writer, the wit and – if I can be so bold – the humorist. Not to mention acknowledging her as a voice for mental health and addiction who has inspired millions fighting their own personal battles, Star Wars was just the vehicle that brought her to us. The same way Leia fought her war of resistance against the Empire, Carrie was fighting her own wars with mental health and addiction, and in time helped others fight this same battle by example.

“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”

George Burns, a humorist in his own right, once said, “Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humorist. If you’re familiar enough with the work, comedy, and banter of Carrie Fisher, you know she possessed very little self-censorship when it came to letting an opportunity for a joke or pun pass her by – so much so that it was as if she had been a vaudeville comedian in a previous life. When asked where she got her personality, she replied, “Sears.” In fact, Carrie Fisher would be the first one to make a joke at the expense of her own death. In fact, she would want us all to laugh and make jokes. Yes, I think I would be paying Carrie Fisher the best possible tribute when I say she never left a hole – I mean, that she never left a void – go un- … okay, well maybe that isn’t appropriate for this medium … but Carrie would have loved the effort. Because what Carrie Fisher did was take ownership of her own narrative by making fun of it.

“I thought I would inaugurate a Bipolar Pride Day. You know, with floats and parades and stuff! On the floats we would get the depressives, and they wouldn’t even have to leave their beds – we’d just roll their beds out of their houses, and they could continue staring off miserably into space. And then, for the manics, we’d have the manic marching band, with manics laughing and talking and shopping and f*%#ing and making bad judgment calls.”

If Nora Ephron’s mantra was “everything is copy,” then Carrie Fisher’s might have been that “nothing is sacred” – or in her own words, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is just unacceptable.” Carrie weathered two marriages (she was actually married only once, but often called the father of her daughter her “second husband”), drug addiction issues, bipolar disorder, drug relapse, being committed, electroshock treatment, being left by her “second husband” for a man, her mother’s failed marriages (take a breath now and:), and her mother’s two husbands, who took all her mother’s money and left her bankrupt (and breathe again). However, Carrie found a way to comment and poke fun at every melodramatic moment of her life (“I am a spy in the house of me”); and, as absurd as it sounds, I am now half-expecting Carrie Fisher to comment on her own death, throwing out one of her one-liners on a talk show or in an emoji-riddled tweet (Most of her tweets, if you are unaware, were in need of a cartographer and a U.N. Translator). I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some letter in her will from Beyond. The. Grave. I mean, you can already trace Carrie Fisher’s life by her fiction (or roman a clefs) alone: Postcards From The Edge (rehab), Surrender To The Pink (first marriage), Delusions of Grandma (motherhood), and The Best Awful (institutionalization and release). There are her more recent memoirs detailing the in-between, as well, including the book and Broadway show Wishful Drinking, many of which echo lines and moments from of her aforementioned novels. You might say Carrie Fisher’s life was an open book (yes, I said it…); and, you know what, Carrie Fisher was fine with that. She said it helped her cope; and, just as importantly, it helped other people cope through her honesty. Since her death, stories of fans who spoke to Carrie at signings and conventions – and even in private twitter messages of advice about their shared troubles, have come out of the woodwork. She counseled, advised, and commiserated with people, not just by example as most celebrities do, but with the personal, imperfect precision of her candor. I say imperfect because what Carrie Fisher taught us was that perfect was overrated.

That even though she was born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of a movie star and a pop star, and starred in a global franchise as a Princess, that didn’t mean she was free of problems – far from it. “Say your weak things in a strong voice,” she would say, “I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.” She inspired many to take ownership and control of what might otherwise tear them down, and not just in brief fan encounters. Carrie Fisher was known to bring strangers and friends to stay in her guest house: those who needed a place to stay, addicts in recovery, even one woman she had just met at an AA meeting who was living in her car. Carrie once expressed that it gave her a sense of community, being open and honest about herself with people, even strangers. She felt that commenting on her own life in humorous ways helped her feel somehow outside of it all, looking down. This way of living life, of not feeling ashamed of one’s own weaknesses – of making sure life was funny – became a battle cry for many people, including myself. And although I personally don’t struggle with mental illness or addiction, she opened my mind up to a world I would have never been privy to. She had this effect not only on her fans, but on many people. The outpouring of remembrance on Twitter from people who had never met Carrie, or who only met her briefly, spoke of how she touched so many with an openness we normally don’t grant to strangers. Even Mark Hamill, her Star Wars co-star (Luke Skywalker) said the same about Carrie when he recalled their first meeting. Stories still pour into Twitter and Facebook about people who sat next to her at a charity event, or on an airplane. And the overall theme (except for maybe the guy who got drunk with her in first class) was that Carrie’s connection to people seemed to come from a genuine place. Sharon Horgan, the star and creator of Catastrophe (Carrie Fisher’s last filmed performance), said “Carrie Fisher was so real it was dangerous.”

“So it’s not what you’re given, it’s how you take it.”

My story with Carrie Fisher may be the least interesting. The first time I met Carrie Fisher was after I had just moved to New York and there were far more Barnes & Noble around than there are today. I attended a free signing for Carrie’s book, The Best Awful. It was a moment I had been waiting for since my mother took me as a young teen to the used book store in our home town and I bought a beat up copy of Surrender The Pink. Carrie, first of all, was funny, and that meant something to me at that age. I don’t remember when I first knew that, knew that she was funny – that she could spin words in the air the way my youthful mind dreamed up, in comic couplets and wry, irreverent phrases. All I know is that Carrie Fisher being funny was what led me to buy that first book, and later pay more attention far past a childhood fancy. And I knew long before I read her fiction, the above-mentioned quote, ​“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true…” resonated with a little dyslexic girl who was struggling. I had clung to that phrase as my own mantra. When I would come home from school, crying my eyes out from being bullied, there was that line telling me: “Have a sense of humor. Life is hard. You can get through this.” I would try to craft my own one-liners (e.g. “Majoring in acting in college is a high-priced degree in waitressing,” and “I’m Jewish, the other white meat!”) and practice my “talk show” banter. I wrote her quotations, among others, on my notebooks and brown paper-covered school books. I borrowed her other books from the library and never missed a talk show appearance. Any memories of Star Wars I had slowly faded away, replaced by Carrie Fisher The Writer. At this signing, not only had I brought her current book, but the aforementioned beat-up copy of Surrender The Pink. I was young and nervous, and sat in the back.

On every seat in the small room across from Lincoln Center, were papers with the rules of Barnes and Noble: no pictures (pictures in line that don’t stop the line are fine), and no signed memorabilia…books only! I saw two people holding Return Of The Jedi 8x10s (a young man and woman) sit down next to me, read the paper, and then leave. I was appalled. “How dare they!” At least stay and hear her read her amazing words. Carrie arrived and posed for pictures in a comedic way that suggested she found the whole idea absurd. After all, that was her persona: the child of a celebrity who saw it for what it was, in all its, well, absurdity. After Carrie read from her book, I made my way through the line until I was finally face-to-face with my hero. “You make me want to be a writer,” I blurted to her and then she smiled and said only one sentence to me. It confused me, so I gave her an odd look back, and just walked away. What had she said to me? Later, while recounting the story to a friend, I tried to remember. She had said something about…trying. I think…

My friend interrupted, “Did she say, ‘Do. There is no try?’”

“Yes,” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”

“That’s Yoda, Lauren. She spoke Yoda to you.”

The last time I had seen Empire Strikes Back was in high school and it wasn’t like I hadn’t had all the Han Solo and Princess Leia scenes memorized; but, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me she would speak Star Wars to me. I wasn’t there for Star Wars. And my friend and I both just laughed our faces off.

‘There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”

I’ve often said being dyslexic is like having a buffet not of your choosing and everyone’s plate is different. Carrie Fisher grew up with a love of books and words, and so did I – only that part of my life was a tragic romance. And today, her frankness still resonates with me – especially after, three years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease … ”Say your weak things in a loud voice.” This is the first time I have admitted publicly to what has been a four year struggle with my health. And even now, saying this in print is scary. Here’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: she was still sensitive and vulnerable and filled with self-doubt like all of us are – and this isn’t a guess, this is based on her own words and her Twitter feed. Up to her death she was still fighting against Hollywood’s and society’s age and beauty restrictions on women: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.” Or in a lighter mode, at Montreal’s Just for Laugh’s Festival 2016, “Can everybody see me okay? I have to double check because I’m from Hollywood, and ya know, women my age tend to be invisible there.”

Her last book, The Princess Diarist, published only a month before her death, contained Fisher’s personal diaries from when she was nineteen and filming Star Wars in 1978. It was raw, unedited and unflinching, and showed – at least to ​me – a young women I recognized as once having been ​in my life, and one I think many women could relate to. It also showed how far Carrie Fisher had grown emotionally. What many creators of current heroic female characters in pop culture seem to forget is that strength in a woman (or any human) isn’t about how strong she is physically, or how little emotion she expresses; it’s that vulnerability is its own form of strength. “Be afraid. But do it anyway,” was how Carrie Fisher said it. That’s bravery.

“I have problems; my problems don’t have me.”

What I think may be most important thing about the last years of Carrie Fisher’s life is that, unlike her Fresh Air interview in 2004, she now understood not only what Star Wars meant to people, but also what she had meant to people. There is a moment in HBO’s Bright Lights, the documentary about her and her mother (most likely filmed in 2014), in which Carrie tells the camera that she believes her fans look up to Leia and not her. Yet with all the stories of people’s interactions with Carrie, sharing their stories with her, of how she had helped them with their depression, anxiety, and so on, I can’t imagine that, by the end of those two years, she didn’t see how they loved her, just Carrie. She looked people in the eyes, made sure they got a picture (even when they weren’t allowed to), held hands, and often hugged people as soon as they started crying. She showered them with actual glitter, because everyone deserves a little glitter in their life. Some might say she faked this for the money. Carrie herself even comically called them “lap dances” but at least from the outside it looked like the resurgence of Star Wars had helped her understand her own appeal. ​Through the release of The Force Awakens I found myself being reminded of my love of Star Wars and my first introduction to Carrie. I had forgotten what it had meant to me. I started co-hosting a Harrison Ford podcast and now, if someone quotes Yoda to me, I know it. Because of that podcast, I was lucky enough to attend the Catastrophe TV panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and the premiere of Bright Lights at the NY Film Festival with Carrie (Debbie actually called and sang to us over the phone). It even seemed odd to me at the time, but in 2016 I crossed paths with Carrie Fisher about four times. The last time I saw Fisher was a signing for The Princess Diarist, in NYC. If you’ve seen Bright Lights or read her Twitter feed, you’ll understand why I gave Carrie a package of Coca-Cola Lip Smackers, because it made me laugh and I thought it would make her laugh, too. It did. I also had the feeling I should give her a little note to tell her how she had helped me. The signing was November 22nd in New York City, and she collapsed on Dec 23rd, preparing to land in Los Angeles.

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

Meryl Streep’s posthumous quotation from Carrie at the Golden Globes this year, “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” seemed like the fitting epitaph to her life. And then about a month after Carrie’s passing, a Women’s March ​was held around the world. A feminist icon herself, Carrie was there, to my own surprise and delight. In posters and signs, shirts and slogans, the rabble-rouser Princess from the rebel base shone big and bright. Mixed in with the rebel princess signs were a few “Carrie Fisher sent me,” because send us she had. After Carrie Fisher passed away, her ashes were kept in a giant, vintage Prozac pill-shaped impromptu urn (a favorite item or hers). Not her idea, per se, but her spirit. So…we should all be so lucky be live life big enough to end up in a big, giant, porcelain Prozac pill. Carrie Fisher’s life, like the books she loved, now has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Carrie went from the Princess to the Jedi Master. She became Obi Wan Kenobi the teacher … or perhaps one of the letters sent to The Guardian sums it up best:

“Hi Carrie….I know you’re dead. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to respond to those who are sick and suffering, because come on, you were super-human in life – and in death you’ve become even more powerful.”

“Back then I was always looking ahead to who I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I

already was, and the wished-for me was most likely based on who other people seemed to be and

the desire to have the same effect on others that they had on me.”

Carrie Fisher — 1956-2016 

Celebrating 50 Years of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by travsd

Nick Viselli and Everett Quinton During Our Recent Interview at the Tick Tock Diner

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Our most avid readers know this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have blogged previously about the company’s founder Charles Ludlam; about frequent Ridiculous collaborator Ethyl Eichelberger; about the company that Ludlam’s broke with, John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous; about performance artist Penny Arcade, who got her start in Ridiculous productions; and about Charles Busch, who had an early affiliation with the company. The Ridiculous cast a long shadow; major artists who acknowledge the company’s influence include Bette Midler (who is also not incidentally a vocal fan of my book No Applause); John Waters, and his core cast members, such as Mink Stole; as well as Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok; and Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA.

And yes, your humble correspondent. Most of my plays owe something to Ludlam and the Ridiculous and I usually give a shout-out where its due. (I confess I even got involved with a woman once, seduced largely by her former ties to the legendary company). It was the thrill of a lifetime when Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s successor as company artistic director and long time company member, appeared in my play Horse Play, or The Fickle Mistress at La Mama two years ago. Everett was generous enough to join me recently, along with Nick Viselli of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, to discuss their 50th anniversary celebrations and revival of Ludlam’s last play The Artificial Jungle for Chelsea Now. Read my article here.

We’ll likely be blogging lots more about this auspicious occasion, so stay tuned!

On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2017 by travsd

The foregoing is adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Douglas Fairbanks’ early career is today overshadowed by his later reputation as a swashbuckling adventure hero. Largely forgotten is the fact that his first five years upon the screen (roughly a quarter of his film career), were spent as a light comedian. And as such he was a huge star, the third most popular screen actor in the country after Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. When he collaborated with those two and Griffith to found United Artists in 1919, he did so as a comedy star; his conversion to historical costume adventures was still a couple of years away. If he had never made a swashbuckling picture, Fairbanks would still have been significant in the history of Hollywood cinema on the strength of this first leg –the comedy stretch — of his career alone. I concur with Gerald Mast who wrote in The Comic Mind that any history of silent comedy is incomplete without him.

It was Fairbanks and his creative team who essentially solved the problem of how to take comedians into features. These folks form one of the most vital links in the Chain of Fools, yet are usually left out of silent comedy histories, mostly because Fairbanks, while both “physical” and a “comedian”, was not per se a “physical comedian”.  That is, while athletic, agile and acrobatic, he was more what we think of as a high comedian than a low one: upper class, charming, generally not clumsy or given to ungentlemanly scraps. He was good looking and, in the end, heroic. As a swashbuckler, he was the prototype of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, but as a comedian, also of Cary Grant, William Powell, and Ronald Colman. His comedy tended to be more sophisticated and dignified than that of the slapstick clowns. Any time the comedian is also the romantic lead as opposed to mere comic relief the lineage is bound to lead back to Fairbanks.

Already 32 by the time he joined D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts division of Triangle in 1915, Fairbanks had been acting on the stage since he was a teenager, with a couple of brief detours into the business world, life experience that would greatly impact his stage personality. By the mid-teens he was a well-known light comic actor who’d been featured in several hits on Broadway and had toured big time vaudeville in comedy sketches. George M. Cohan had even written a vehicle for him, Broadway Jones, but Cohan had liked the part so much he decided to play it himself.

Before even going into films Fairbanks was well on the way to forging his famous persona, and had begun incorporating his natural athleticism and gymnastic ability into his stage roles. Reliable accounts of Fairbanks’ childhood in Denver make him sound something close to what we now call hyperactive; he was forever jumping off of roofs and causing disruptions at school. As a young man, he became an early convert to what was then called “physical culture”. This was the age of Teddy Roosevelt’s gospel of “the Strenuous Life”, of Sandow the Strongman, of the seemingly invincible Harry Houdini. Fairbanks religiously spent time every day applying himself to self-improvement in the gymnasium.  He was unique in incorporating his athleticism into a stage character that in turn owed something to George M. Cohan’s image: lively, American, vigorous, kinetic. Whereas Cohan was somewhat urban, pushy and “street”, Fairbanks was every inch the All-American milk drinking WASP and somewhat aristocratic in mien, cloaking his upbringing in a broken home in the Wild and Woolly state of Colorado.

Not just light on his feet but light on his hands — a heartstopping handstand at the rim of the Grand Canyon in “Wild and Woolly”

One of the first things Fairbanks did upon arriving at Griffith’s studio was set up a makeshift gym of his own, allowing him to indulge in highly public workouts on the rings, the pommel horse, and so forth. The serious-minded Griffith reportedly had no use for this kind of cheeky showboating. Nor did he think much of Fairbanks, whom he felt had been foisted on him by the back office. Griffith’s opinion was that the vigorous upstart would be better off with the Mack Sennett division of Triangle, where he could leap and gambol to his heart’s content. Fairbanks found the concept insulting. He considered himself an actor, not a clown, backflips notwithstanding. The decision to remain in Griffith’s division was the correct one. By way of illustration:  in his very first film The Lamb (1915), Fairbanks does indeed take a pratfall within the first five minutes of the movie, absentmindedly leaning on a hedge as he talks to a girl and tumbling to the ground.  By contrast, in a Sennett comedy such events would happen within the first five seconds and then at five second intervals thereafter. That is the difference. Sennett didn’t care enough about story to devise a sustainable feature (he made 18 features; it’s a question how sustainable any of them were). The ideal length for a Sennett farce was 10-20 minutes, and even at that, some of them seem excessively long. Fairbanks was a Broadway star, he demanded film vehicles that would be comparable in scope and quality to his recent stage successes.

The Lamb was just that. An adaptation of his most recent Broadway hit The New Henrietta, it established the formula that would continue for the next several years: an effete but healthy and good-hearted rich boy from the Northeast is busy having a good time, but lacks a purpose, a mission. Then like the heroes of old, he is called and he ends up proving himself, usually in some more challenging milieu, most often the American West. In The Lamb, Fairbanks plays a young society fellow who must fight to keep the attention of his fiancé from straying to the virile chap from Arizona they have recently met.  In the end, he defeats a bloodthirsty band of Mexican cut-throats using a machine gun and his new jiu-jitsu skills. That’ll do it.

Fairbanks’ humor is an outgrowth of his personality and his unique attainments as an amateur gymnast. He is insanely likeable. In the films, you watch him charm the other actors even as he’s charming you. It’s a “gosh, gee whiz” sort of personality, mixed with the assertiveness we associate with old-fashioned salesmanship. In theory, it may sound off-putting. In practice, one is disarmed. Fairbanks’ bonhomie is genuine. One gets a real sense of him being an American’s idea of a gentleman, which might best be described as the opposite of the European idea. The American conception is not a matter of birth or class, but of manners – someone who is absolutely nice and respectful to everyone he meets no matter who they are, rich, poor, black or white. And Fairbanks embodies that in these films, even if, as in The Americano (1916), the black man is unfortunately played by a Caucasian in blackface. The key is that Fairbanks’ overwhelmingly cheerful, positive personality has physical manifestations. He literally jumps for joy, clicks his heels, turns handsprings. In American Aristocracy (1916) he is so energetic that he appears to have trouble restraining himself from humping a tent pole. And this is just in the early parts of his films. In the third act when he is busy saving the day, the dynamo kicks into overdrive. That’s when Fairbanks scurries up the facades of buildings, leaps across roofs, swings on tree branches, scales trellises and telephone poles. And he is really doing those things; it is not a stunt man. Fairbanks’ audiences were buying tickets to a true spectacle.

Defying gravity in “The Matrimaniac”

I mentioned Fairbanks’ creative team earlier. His public image benefitted from the input of many collaborators. One of the most frequent of his scenario writers, but by no means the only one, was Anita Loos, best known nowadays for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which she wrote a few years later. Loos had been writing for D.W. Griffith since 1912. One of Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriters, she had penned some of Griffith’s best known early films, including 1912’s The New York Hat (with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore) and the path-breaking 1912 urban crime film The Musketeers of Pig Alley (featuring Lillian Gish and Elmer Booth). At the moment she was writing the titles for Intolerance, but was only too happy to be part of the staff that would devise original vehicles for Fairbanks.

In His Picture in the Papers (1916), Loos would strike a new note that would become a major dimension of the Fairbanks idea for the next half dozen years: satire. In that movie, Fairbanks plays a decidedly meat-eating son of a vegetarian health food magnate. The young man is challenged by his father to bring in some positive publicity for their family-owned company, much as a tribal chieftain might instruct his heir apparent to prove himself by going to bag a wild boar. This was the age of Pulitzer and Hearst, mind you – Loos was identifying a brand new phenomenon that would only intensify with the advent of radio, television and the internet. Fairbanks’ persona lent itself very nicely to ironic nose-tweaking of American foibles. In many of his films, not just the ones penned by Loos, this would be an important ingredient in the mix.

A surprising number of variations could be rung on Fairbanks’ character. In Manhattan Madness (1916) he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home.) He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In The Habit of Happiness (1916) he is a privileged young man who preaches the gospel of laughter for health and wealth. He proves the efficacy of his doctrine by getting a girl, a job and the acceptance of his father by implementing his philosophy. (The next year, Fairbanks emulated his own character by releasing a self-help book called Laugh and Live).

In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Woolly (1917) he plays the son of a railroad magnate who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an old west charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.

Some of the films play somewhat more like fairy tale romances than comedies. Reaching for the Moon (1917), a full blown Loos satire, starts the trend. Fairbanks’ plays an overeager office boy who drives everyone crazy with his dreams of glory until the day he learns that he is a European prince and gets more of a taste of what real rulers face than he bargained for. Subsequent movies, however, lavish happy endings upon him without the didacticism. In The Americano he is a young mining engineer sent to a Central American country during a coup. In this one, he not only gets the girl and the job – but control of the army! In His Majesty, the American (1919) the character learns that he is the heir apparent to the throne of a troubled Eastern European country.  Just so we know that he’s an alright guy, though, he announces that he plans to run it like America. These pictures pave the way for the shift in emphasis in the twenties, when he will be taking on fare like Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad.

Seldom a climax without climbing: from “A Modern Musketeer”

The Fairbanks films are an interesting hybrid; comic in tone until the last act, when his character must come to the rescue in dead earnest. We are still wowed by his physical feats, but we are no longer laughing at him, we are rooting for him to accomplish his goals. This aspect of the Fairbanks formula would influence not only Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton but films down to modern times. (I am dating myself I guess by thinking of examples like Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop).

So it was Fairbanks as much as Chaplin who pioneered something like real story telling in the comedy film, providing a pathway for comedians like Harold Lloyd and many others to come.  Others who emulated Fairbanks included Douglas MacLean, Reginald Denny and Johnny Hines. Of these, only Lloyd made so lasting an impression in silents that his popularity has survived until the present day.

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

RIP Ringling Brothers, Part 2

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , on May 21, 2017 by travsd

Today, as we warned a few months ago, is the final performance ever of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus

The circus world will carry on. But RBBB was an institution, the only American arts organization I can think of that ranks with, say, Mount Rushmore, or the Statue of Liberty as an American monument. A living American monument. P.T. Barnum started presenting performers in 1835, when New York City was by our standards a village at the very bottom of Manhattan. There is no American theatre, and no American theatre artist or show biz performer who doesnt owe something to his enterprises. With my apologizes to my beloved Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, to have his name wink out on marquees, as well as those of James A. Bailey and the Ringling Bros, is a dark day for America, and the world. No Barnum, no Broadway and no Hollywood. Fuck you, Seth MacFarlane and Ricky Gervais, for cheering about it online. The RBBB wasn’t an entity reducible to a single policy (however badly that policy needed to be changed or revisited). It was the mother of American show business.

For my recent address on the state of the American circus go here.

Why Most of the Time Frank Capra was Not “Frank Capra”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

It’s film director Frank Capra’s birthday. This post has come about because in recent years I’ve filled out my Capraducation some — I’ve seen a bunch of his more obscure movies from early and late in his career. Once you do that, Capra’s “voice” becomes more diffuse. It becomes harder to say what it is.

It’s become idiomatic: “A Frank Capra movie”. Most people think they know what they mean by the phrase, and the idea that they have, I’ll bet, is coherent. It’s based on a handful of his best known and best loved movies, which will generally consist of the Capra movies most people have seen, chiefly: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Nowadays, many would call It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite and I’ve even heard some ostensibly knowledgeable commentators call it the most representative Capra movie. I would have to disagree. In my book, the two most perfectly constructed distillations of the Capra Idea are Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith…the little guy going up against huge, apparently unbeatable and malevolent forces and winning. In the case of Mr. Deeds it’s an ethic of generosity vs. cynical greed. In Mr. Smith it’s the application of power towards the common good vs. power for its own sake. It would be hard for me to pick which is my favorite. Some days, the first, other days, the second.

“Mr. Smith” — the Capra template

At any rate, while the other films I just mentioned may come close to the ideal in philosophy and tone, they deviate in structure. The stage version of You Cant Take It With You was much different; Capra kind of wrestled it into a message picture he was more comfortable with for the screen version, and it’s a little inorganic. Meet John Doe is very dark; it lacks the affirmation we get from Deeds and Smith. There is an 11th hour reprieve in the film but it is a small one and we emerge full of doubt about the goodness of The People. It’s a Wonderful Life is also pretty dark; it’s about a man’s inner battle between his own self-interest and the sacrifices he makes for the good of those around him. It’s an excellent movie (Capra justifiably thought that it was his best) but I wouldn’t call it representative of the Capra Idea — that’s my point.

Still these are the five I would call the most Capraesque in that sense. Yet Capra made close to 40 Hollywood features, and another dozen or so documentary films and industrials besides. Most of these films are not “Frank Capra films” in the commonly used sense. Some come close: I’d have to include The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932), Platinum Blonde (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) and State of the Union (1948) in a slightly expanded circle, dealing as they do with fraudulence and values in America (most of them in the context of the Depression). He’s constantly asking, “What matters most in this world? Fame and riches? Or being a right guy?”

I haven’t seen all of his films, but of the ones I’ve seen the remainder are quite a grab bag. There are his two silent comedy vehicles for Harry Langdon, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), generally conceded to be among the greatest of silent comedy features. (Capra got his start in silent comedy as a gag writer for Our Gang!) There’s the Joe Cook starring vehicle Rain or Shine (1930), also essentially a straight up “comedian comedy”. Dirigible (1931) is a fictional adventure story about a race to the South Pole in a hot air balloon. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Lost Horizon (1937) have (probably unintentional) racist overtones that seem to oddly point the way to his anti-Japanese propaganda films of WWII. Broadway Bill (1934) is a horse racing story; he later remade it as Riding High (1950). Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is just a straight-up farcical comedy with no social dimension at all.

Interestingly, although so many now love It’s a Wonderful Life, it bombed when first released. It was both a financial disaster and a crisis of confidence for Capra that he never completely recovered from. I theorize that 1946 audiences found it intolerably old-fashioned and sentimental. To us, it seems timeless. But in 1946, the cutting edge was movies like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra was now at sea. I happen to like State of the Union (1948), a story of political corruption not unlike Meet John Doe. But everything after that is both feeble and pretty hard to take. Of his four remaining features, two are remakes of previous Capra hits (Broadway Bill as Riding High; Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles [1961]). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom [1951]) star Bing Crosby. A Hole in the Head (1959) is the most interesting and easiest to take of the bunch, although it’s slow moving and lacks the sort of sparkle that once came easily to him.

Capra remained healthy and alert well into the 1980s. I loved his autobiography and I often used to think “What a shame he could’t get funding for pictures, he had at least another couple of productive decades in him.” But then I went and watched (or tried to watch) his last movie Pocketful of Miracles the other day, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and I was like “Oooooh! This is why.” And I’m more than okay with the fact Capra made no further movies. It seems as though, in his best pictures, i.e., the Depression era message movies and his Why We Fight series of WWII documentaries, he had something to push back against. An epic sized villain. Lady for a Day had made sense in the context of the Depression, but as a period piece I found Pocketful of Miracles screechingly, unwatchably bad, just woefully out of step with the times, full of patronizing, rose-colored, romanticized portrayals of homeless people and gangsters. I sort of wanted to throw up from the first frame. And, listen, I’m plenty sentimental. I watch Capra’s movies from the 30s and weep.

The last Hollywood film Capra worked on was the sci-fi astronaut story Marooned, which he was originally to direct. He quit the project due to budgetary frustrations. The film was finally made by John Sturges and released in 1969. A lot of his final movies were science related documentaries and industrials. By training he was an engineer.

So we return to my original thesis. Most of Frank Capra’s movies are not “Frank Capra” movies. Those constitute a minority within his body of work.

%d bloggers like this: