Archive for October, 2013

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , on October 31, 2013 by travsd

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My sharing of the trailer from Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) may surprise readers who know how I feel about the films of Abbott and Costello. I include it because I think it is a much more entertaining mummy movie than all of Universal’s “serious” mummy sequels. It contains much more of what I want from a mummy movie, at any rate…an Egyptian setting, tombs, pyramids, guys in pith helmets and of course a somnambulant, dusty, 4,000 year old fellow walking around wrapped in ace bandages. Most of the “legit” sequels turn out to be set in the U.S. for some odd reason (probably expense) and we get far too little onscreen mummy time. The irony is that in my view Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the best of all the sequels to the original The Mummy. That is, until the reboot.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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On the Greatness of John Candy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , on October 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late, lamented John Candy (1950-1994). “There’s always a role for John Candy,” I used to say to my pals in the SCTV days, the thrust of my meaning being that, no matter the scenario or the premise, there always seemed to be a role to fit what was then a more unusual body type: a big fat guy. And of course, as I’ve often remarked the show business world has always had at least one funny fat man on tap throughout the ages: John Bunny, Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason, John Belushi….But Candy was a new phenomenon, because, like all of his SCTV cast-mates, he had range. On the show, he memorably played Orson Welles, Julia Child, Divine, Pavarotti, Tip O’Neill, Merlin Olsen, and even, thanks to a bit of hilariously insensitive video wizardry, Herve Villechaise. Even more rewarding for the opportunities they gave for him to show off his acting chops were his recurring original characters like Johnny LaRue, Mayor Tommy Shanks, Willy B. Williams, Dr. Tongue, Yosh Shmenge, Gil Fisher (the Fishin’ Musician), and Harry, the Guy With the Snake on His Face.

It was initially thrilling to see him emerge in major movies. He’d actually been appearing in films since 1973, but in the late 70s/ early 80s had small roles in the really big pictures 1941, The Blues Brothers and Stripes. In 1984 he played the funny best friend in Splash and this is what pushed him over into star status. Sadly, like almost all of our great comedians of the last half century or more, he went on to make a string of movies that across the board have to be categorized as trivial junk. Lest ye protest this or that exception — I have to say, no, I’ve looked carefully over his filmography and I would characterize all of these movies as disposable, and that includes his 1991 experiment in pathos Only the Lonely with Maureen O’Hara.

But his television work on SCTV remains untouched.  Unfortunately, there’s little of it on Youtube (rights, you know). But here is a terrifically insightful interview about him with his friend and colleague (and one of my favorite comedians) Eugene Levy:

To find out about  the history of show business including television variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The East Side Kids in “Ghosts on the Loose”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , on October 30, 2013 by travsd

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A better than average spook comedy featuring the East Side Kids, directed by William Beaudine, and featuring Bela 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!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Lucy’s Halloween Nightmare

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by travsd

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In this cartoonish fantasy sequence from Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball and sidekick Vivian Vance are trapped in a haunted castle by her boss Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) who is actually quite believable as a scary vampire. Along the way they are accosted by a malevolent Morris chair, a gorilla, a lab assistant who is a mummy for some reason (probably because that’s what costume was available), a werewolf and a skeleton. A machine turns the ladies into witches for some reason. Lucy is excellent in the role, much funnier, and much less disturbing than she is in her ordinary persona (the woman was in her sixties at this point). In the end of this absurd little sequence, everyone is doing a square dance, being called by a decapitated head that is hanging on the wall. Much better to stay in this dream than go back to the reality of Here’s Lucy, I should think.

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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A Monstrous Monkee Mash

Posted in Comedy, Music, Rock and Pop, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , on October 30, 2013 by travsd

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It was bound to happen sometime and for in January 1968 it did…The Monkees aired a spook comedy episode. Lured to a Transylvania castle by a hot Goth chick, Davy is in danger of being turned into a vampire. When his three bandmates come to rescue him, they encounter The Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy. It shouldn’t happen to the Count Five, let alone the Monkees! 

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Ruth Gordon: The Actress

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of that divine character Ruth Gordon Jones (1896-1985 — she shortened her name for show business). She wrote several autobiographical books, plus her early life was the subject of the 1953 film The Actress, all highly recommended avenues for learning about the life of a barnstorming trouper in the final glory days of the American theatre. Gordon was from a middle class Quincy Massachusetts family (THAT’s what that accent is!). Star struck as a girl she wrote fan letters to several actors; Hazel Dawn wrote words of encouragement back to her. After much heated family discussion, Gordon’s father finally paid for her to move to New York and study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Her Broadway debut was as one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan in 1915; over the next 60 years she would star in nearly three dozen plays, including works by Chekhov, Ibsen and Shaw. She was the original Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955). She also wrote several plays for Broadway: Over 21 (1944), Years Ago (1946), and The Leading Lady (1948). This led naturally to screenwriting. Over 21 became a film in 1945; she also wrote A Double Life (1947) and The Actress (an adaptation of Years Ago, 1953) and with husband Garson Kanin, the two Hepburn-Tracy vehicles, Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).

Success in front of the cameras was slower in coming, however. While the younger Gordon was pretty, she was very short and her looks were not conventionally beautiful. In the 1940s she got about a half dozen roles, the most notable of which was Mary Todd Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).

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It wasn’t until her later years, when she was an elderly woman that she suddenly clicked before film and television audiences and became a modern celebrity. As an old woman she was adorable and had her own vocabulary of tics and tricks that allowed her to steal the show no matter what she appeared in. The late roles include Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Lord Love a Duck (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968, for which she won an Oscar), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), Where’s Poppa? (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), My Bodyguard (1980), Every Which Way You Can (1980), and lots and lots of television, including a memorable Columbo turn in 1977. Her last (posthumous) part was in The Trouble With Spies (1987).

Here’s why we loved her. This turn on Dick Cavett’s show, with Woody Allen beside her is just riveting. I forgot to mention — in addition to being brilliant, she was a nut!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Fanny Brice: The Funny Girl in Vaudeville

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by travsd

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Best known today via Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Brice was actually rather unlike Streisand in appearance. Tall and gangly like Olive Oyl, with two bright crescent-shaped eyes on either side of her parrot-like nose, Brice was always using this mug for low comedy effect, crossing her eyes, and so forth. She usually spoke with a Yiddish accent for laughs, although she didn’t actually speak that way herself. Brice made her fame parodying the sort of women she wasn’t (cinematic vamps and high-class society dames with English accents), thereby allowing the audience to laugh at them and her at the same time. She also became very well known for singing sentimental character songs crafted around the names “Sadie” and “Rose”.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Born Fanny Borach in 1891, her parents ran a saloon in Newark where Fanny sang and danced as a child. Her father was a drunk from Alsace. Her mother, who wore the pants in the family, was from Hungary. The mother ran the saloon, but the father drank the profits. So they moved to Brooklyn, where the mother sold real estate, which you couldn’t drink, at least.

At age 14, Fanny won an amateur contest at a Brooklyn theatre when she sang “When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.” She took the name “Brice” from a  neighbor. She got a job early in the chorus of a Cohan musical starring Victor Moore The Talk of New York (1907) but was fired for joking around during rehearsal.

Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and 1911. Like Jimmy Durante, she was one of the few to make it big in show business PRIOR to working in vaudeville. When she worked in vaudeville it was strictly prestige dates such as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Palace. A number of Shubert musicals followed, such as The Whirl of Society (1912) and The Honeymoon Express. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies. In the late 20s, it was back to vaudeville.

Her one shot at a real starring role in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth was, she couldn’t act—she mugged too hard, and played her roles from too great a distance. You can see it in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld: in her big dramatic scene, in which she plays herself, she is definitely weeping tears of glycerine.

Brice divorced her husband, jailed gangster Nick Arnstein in 1927 and married impresario Billy Rose in 1929. A number of Rose vehicles followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Ziegfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis) and divorce caused her early retirement from the stage. She moved out to L.A. where she starred as Baby Snooks on radio, and took bit parts in movies for the remainder of her career. In honor of the Halloween season, we herewith include the Baby Snooks Halloween episode from 1946:

Brice died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square is supposedly based on Brice’s relationship with Arnstein. Unfortunately, it stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, which is sort of like casting mayonnaise and white bread in a story about mustard and pumpernickel. Lacking any hint of humor or spice, the film also makes the traditional Hollywood mistake of featuring 1939 music and fashions in a story set twenty years earlier. Funny Girl (1968) gets it better, but somehow seems to be more about its star Barbara Streisand than about Brice. The film focuses on Brice’s problematic relationship with Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who comes off in the movie – unaccountably – as a saint. the 1975 sequel Funny Lady is about Brice’s rocky marriage to Rose. Brice herself managed to make a cameo from beyond the grave in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, thanks to Modern Movie Magic.

Now here she is doing whats he did best. The number is “Dainty Quainty Me” from the 1938 musical Everybody Sing:

To learn out more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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