Archive for March, 2014

I Made People Magazine This Week (Thanks to Bette Midler)!

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Jews/ Show Biz, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , , on March 31, 2014 by travsd

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In case you missed my very loud tweets this weekend, the big news at the moment is that the Divine Miss M plugged my book No Applause in this week’s edition of People Magazine. The issue (on news stands now) is dated April 7 (it won’t be online until later so nothing to link to at the moment.). Midler puts No Applause on a very short list of her favorite tomes, calling it the BEST showbiz book! My company on the list includes Mark Twain and Jack London. This is a lady with very good taste!

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t return the favor (in my own small way but to the best of my ability). The occasion for People soliciting her picks in the first place is the re-release of her 1980 autobiography A View from a Broad. It goes on shelves tomorrow, and she’ll be having a book signing here in New York at the Union Square Barnes and Noble (details here). I’m half tempted to go so I can thank her in person, but I do hate crowds, and the worst psychic in the world can predict that it’ll be a mob scene! Her fans are a CULT! Still, I think I just may have to go…

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Mickey One

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stand Up with tags , , , on March 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Warren Beatty (b. 1937).

In a career full of interesting movies, Beatty’s most outre may be 1965’s Mickey One. Directed by Arthur Penn, this little known anomaly mixes elements of French New Wave, American film noir, jazz,  and Absurdist theatre. Beatty plays a hack night club comic who hears that the club’s owner, a mafia chieftain, wants to punish him for an infraction. He doesn’t know who wants to get him or why, he just knows he has to shed his identity and go on the lam. Eventually desperate for money, he eases back into comedy and gets back on to the mob’s radar again. Still not knowing what he did to upset the man at the top, he decides to keep plugging anyway, come what may. The Existential predicament in a nutshell! (It’s right there in the name. “One”, man solo, alone in the universe as symbolized by the stand-up comedian — the loneliest job in the world (I explored a similar thread in my play Nihils).

I’ve been able to learn next to nothing about screenwriter Alan Surgal, but I’d be shocked to learn the kernel of this tale didn’t come from Joe E. Lewis’s very similar life story…a night club comic on the run from gangsters. In addition to being gorgeously shot (in black and white) and exhilaratingly edited, with a very cool be bop sound track, there’s the documentary aspect, with lots of location shooting. This movie (a lot like another of my favorites The Loved One) is a snapshot of America at the cusp of a huge sea change…the very moment when men stopped putting grease in their hair and wearing hats.

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Strangely enough, Beatty is miscast in the role. He’s too young, he’s not naturally crude or urban or pushy (or yes, ethnic) enough. Tony Curtis would have been PERFECT.  Or better yet, stunt casting with someone like Milton Berle or Jan Murray. Beatty’s in this picture because it’s hip and experimental, but he’s not old school show biz enough for the character, despite the cigars he pretends to smoke. But that might have been a conscious choice, too. The “comedy routines” he delivers in the film are oddly unfunny and strange. They remind me of the ones in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, delivered by the dancer who decides he wants to be funny, but has a tin ear for humor. But maybe that’s intentional. Is Beatty’s character a comedian? Or is he just us?

Still, this is an amazing movie; it’s a crying shame it disappeared immediately after it was released, and pretty much lay under wraps for another three decades. (In the ’90s it came out of mothballs. I first became aware of it when it had a run then at Film Forum.) At any rate, two years later Beatty and Penn collaborated on another picture that enjoyed somewhat greater success at the box office: Bonnie and Clyde. 

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #80: Wild Kingdom

Posted in Animal Acts, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , on March 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Marlin Perkins (1905-1986).

Now that there are entire television networks devoted to nature shows, it seems quaint and humorous that our access to such programming used to consist of about a half hour a week. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (1963-1985) wasn’t the only nature show on during its years of broadcast, but it was certainly the gold standard. If I remember correctly, where I lived it used to air on Sunday nights, the same night as The Wonderful World of Disney and it made for ideal family programming, interesting to both parents and children.

Television has always had the potential to be a great educational tool, but it also has a nasty ability to trivialize whatever it touches.  I’ve often written about how Orson Welles, one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century became a figure of fun because of his television appearances. Many people who actually made some great contributions to science and education, such as Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan, became the butts of comedy routines, and fodder for tv impressionists. These guys made actual, substantial contributions to humanity, and they were essentially transformed into “Guys with Funny Voices”.

Such too was the case with Marlin Perkins. He had been the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for 20 years, and the director of the St. Louis Zoo after that. But as far as the country was concerned he was a kind of punchline, a sort of awkward, stereotypical science nerd not unlike Wally Cox’s Mr. Peepers. And there used to be a joke that Perkins would invariably remain off to the side in some safe position while his cohort Jim McKay did all the hard, dangerous work of approaching and interacting with wild animals. The fact was, Marlin Perkins was a tough old bird, who once punched a reporter in the face for implying that he faked his segments on the show. He’d even been on expeditions with Sir Edmund Hillary to the Himilayas to search for the elusive Yeti!

In that vein, here’s an atypical episode of Wild Kingdom devoted to cryptozoology and myth. I am amazed looking back now and seeing the crudity of the show’s production. While plenty of dough was obviously spent on location shooting in remote locations, the studio sets in the wrap-arounds are hilarious in their simplicity. The window curtains look like something from your grandmother’s kitchen.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was also one of the last one-sponsor shows. In the 40s and 50s, it was common for many (perhaps most) programs to have a single sponsor’s name right in the title of the show: Old Gold, Colgate, Fleischmann’s Yeast.  Perkins had a funny way (which also became fodder for comedians) of tying whatever was going on in the show into a plug for Mutual of Omaha’s insurance.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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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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Joseph Coyne: A Coyne of the Realm

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on March 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Joseph “Joe” Coyne (1867-1941), a rare American transplant back to the Mother Country. A New York native, Coyne got his start at Niblo’s Garden as a teenager and spent several years in American vaudeville. He eventually became a member of the Rose Lyall Dramatic Company and began acting in plays (he was in a dozen Broadway shows between 1899 and 1908). In 1906 he moved to London where he became a star of West End musicals. His last performance was in 1931. Interestingly, though he was a star of the stage, he appears never to have made the transition to motion pictures.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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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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Charlie Chaplin Experiences “Cruel, Cruel Love”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today marks the centennial anniversary of the Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy Cruel, Cruel Love (1914), directed by George Nichols. This movie is a little different from what we expect; at this early stage Chaplin is still trying out new things. Here he is most definitely NOT the Little Tramp character but a dude somewhat similar to his character in Making a LivingHere he plays Lord Helpus (get it?) who is romancing a damsel played by Minta Durfee. When Durfee sees him assisting a maid who has hurt himself she becomes jealous and hands him back his ring. He goes back home and takes what he thinks is poison. There follows the first of many dream sequences in Chaplin films. He goes to Hell and interacts with devils. Finally Durfee and her servants rush in to explain the misunderstanding and his own butler reveals that he has only drunk water. Melee ensues.

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

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harry Langdon in “Long Pants”

Posted in Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by travsd

 

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Harry Langdon‘s feature Long Pants (1927), directed by Frank Capra, was released on this date.

Long Pants is a strange film. Blooming adolescent Harry is scheduled to marry the girl his parents have picked out for him, and is content to go along with it until a beautiful femme fatale (Alma Bennett) has a flat tire directly outside his house. He falls for the mystery woman hard. So hard, in fact, that he attempts to kill his innocent bride-to-be in order to pursue the vamp. He arrives to visit the dame just as she has broken out of jail, and gets embroiled in her life of crime until she finally gets shot full of holes in a speakeasy fracas. Harry returns home to his parents and his girl, hopefully (but doubtfully) a little older and wiser.

This one is undoubtedly darker, but it still did well at the box office. The incongruity of seeing Harry interacting with these hardened criminals provokes something akin to nervous laughter.

Many commentators (notably Walter Kerr) have found a major flaw in the film’s title and the premise of the opening act: Harry in Long Pants. From the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth, it was traditional for young boys to wear shorts or knickers until puberty, at which time they got their first pair of long trousers, marking their coming of age. This moment happens to Harry early in the film. Kerr and others feel that the scene is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that Langdon’s character is usually presented as an adult who happens to possess many of the qualities of a child. However, this film seems to pin him down in age as a pubescent, at least in the film’s opening scenes. Secondly, they feel the premise is confusing. They are of the opinion that opening with Harry receiving his long pants defines him as being thirteen years old. Which makes it a mite confusing when, in the very next scene, he is about to be married. The answer to me is so obvious you’d have to be willfully blind not to see it. If you want to be LITERAL-MINDED about it, we can’t help noting that in the opening scene Harry’s mother is highly reluctant to let his father present him with long pants in the first place. She clearly wants to prolong his childhood. Isn’t it logical then to conclude that she has been doing that right along, and that Harry IS indeed seventeen, or even older? It is, and there’s your definitive answer.

 

For more on comedy film history, including Long Pants, see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

Wheeler and Woolsey in the Original “Girl Crazy”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , on March 25, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the hilarious musical comedy Girl Crazy (1932) starring the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey. The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Homey don’t play dat.

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

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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