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. 

Stan Laurel in “Pie Eyed”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo) with tags , , , , on March 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Stan Laurel solo comedy Pie Eyed (1925). In the decade or so prior to his teaming with Hardy, Laurel had a great deal of difficulty finding himself as a comic character. In Pie-eyed, released two years before the pairing, Laurel gives us a Chaplin-style drunk turn, causing disruptions at a night club. When he finally gets kicked out of the nightclub, he brings his disruptions out into the world (including a downright theft of a Keaton gag, when he tries to put his overcoat on over a signpost.) Later, a cop brings him home and has great difficult getting him to stay there…

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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Charley Chase in “The Fraidy Cat”

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on March 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charley Chase short The Fraidy Cat (1924). Directed by Chase’s brother James Parrott, this short has a lot of similarities with Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s BoyChase’s character Jimmy Jump is frightened by everything he encounters, from neighborhood children and dogs to the rival for his girl. When he mistakenly thinks he’s dying he suddenly gets the heart of a lion. The group of kids, by the way, is one of the first appearances of the group soon to to be branded “Our Gang”, later known as The Little Rascals. 

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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The Not So Great Race

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on March 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today at 5pm Eastern, Turner Classic Movies will be showing Blake Edwards’ epic-length time waster The Great Race (1965). This movie has always put a bee in my bonnet, largely due its reputation as a “comedy classic”, and the fact that so many people unreflectively sign off on that assessment.

The Great Race announces itself as the last word in slapstick comedy (look at the poster) and a shocking, downright depressing number of otherwise bright people apparently take it at its word despite the 160 minute running time, the molasses-like pace, the paucity of gags, the egregious miscasting, the major digression that doubles the length of the movie….shall I go on? Self importantly dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy“, the film is an unworthy tribute  to put it mildly, reflecting nothing about Laurel’s or Hardy’s comic art that I can ascertain, neither the team’s adeptness at physical comedy, nor their clownish characterizations, nor their complex calculus of gags. If I would have to compare The Great Race to any silent era slapstick, I would choose the cruder, more cartoonish comedy of Mack Sennett or Larry Semon, and even those guys crammed ten times more gags into their twenty minutes than are contained in the whole of this two hour forty minute monstrosity. If it resembles anything at all, this movie looks like other bloated, tedious outings of the 50s and 60s. The most similar precedent in terms of execution being Around the World in 80 Days. 

By the way, the even longer It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is not be mentioned in the same breath as The Great Race; the former film succeeds everywhere the latter one fails. (See my tribute to Mad World here). Mad World is cast with about 50 full bore comedians, not just actors, genuine comedians, all working at the top of their game, all with the same very strong motivation (greed), so they’re all playing very strong actions, leading to very broad, funny comedy. In the best Sennett tradition there is competition within an ensemble, and the gags fly fast and furious. Something funny is going on practically the entire time.

The stakes in The Great Race, on the other hand, are very low indeed: who will win the car race? Who cares? Not for a minute do I care who wins the race. And if I had to choose someone, I’d choose the top hatted villain, played by Jack Lemmon, because he’s the funniest in the bunch but that’s not saying much. Lemmon and the other three comic principals (Tony Curtis, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn) are all woefully miscast in what is supposed to be a slapstick comedy. I’ve seen all four of them be terribly funny in very different sorts of comedies, usually some variant on dialogue-based realism or screwball comedy. But these are not by inclination or training CLOWNS, guys who fall down stairs and into tar barrels and so forth. The fifth major character, played by Natalie Wood, has the virtue of being beautiful but she is only 10% as amusing or interesting as even the other four are. In smaller roles there are other character actors: Ross Martin, Larry Storch, Denver Pyle, Marvin Kaplan, etc.  They all underplay their characters (even Lemmon, despite his outlandish costume) and they simply don’t bring any skills to the table. They don’t do anything. They say their lines. They exhibit no funny physical behavior, and they don’t have any witty lines to deliver. They drive around in antique cars and other unimaginative contraptions for TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES. It’s kind of like a Road Runner cartoon, but without the freedom of imagination allowed by animation, and with a fraction of the gags.

The pace  is glacial. The distance one must cross between opening and closing credits is excruciating. Tt feels like crossing the Sahara on a lame camel.  Each gag (every 500 miles or so) is as rare and welcome as an oasis. But the water is warm and brackish to the taste. One is only glad to get it because there is nothing else to drink available.

And that’s why, I fear, this movie has that undeserved reputation as a classic. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of competition in that era. The experts had died out, and that kind of comedy was unfashionable so young people weren’t replacing them. Blake Edwards picked up the mantle because scarcely anyone else was inclined to and walked away with an unearned reputation for genius. I dont claim that he never successfully filmed gags or that I have never laughed at portions of any of his movies (I’m pretty partial to elements of The Party, for example). But as a general rule, the gags come too few in his films to achieve any momentum, and there are no full flesh and blood characters to become enmeshed in the predicaments  he puts them in.

It’s not that they are cartoonish. Often they are not cartoonish enough. It is more that they are desultory, fragmented, internally inconsistent, irritating, unlikable — shall I go on? Since he claims to like Stan Laurel so much:  a Laurel gag sequence is built on constant variation and escalation, culminating with a topper and then a button or twist. Here’s one of their best, in Wrong Again). In a Blake Edwards movie, the character does one thing.  It produces titters. And then the character continues to do the same thing for the next 75 minutes. By the time the routine is over, I’m already at the airport waiting for the plane that will take me to the farthest spot on the planet away from his movie. That’s where I’ll be today at 5pm.

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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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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Stars of Vaudeville #862: Joseph Coyne

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, 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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