Archive for June, 2014

Raymond Griffith and Betty Compson in “Paths to Paradise”

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

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Paramount Raymond GriffithBetty Compson comedy Paths to Paradise (1925)

In this sparkling feature, Griffith and Compson play a pair of con artists who team up for a jewel robbery. The opening set piece is tremendous: a highly elaborate long con of the type we recognize from The Sting: a colorful fake location (a dive bar/ opium den) populated with a large number of con artists in costume, as low lifes and policemen: they frame their marks for a “murder” and then take the “bribe”.

For the main trunk of the film, Griffith and Compson learn of a diamond necklace a rich man intends give his new bride. Each goes in for their own separate con, she as a maid, he as a detective, but they end up combining efforts. Their playful rivalry in this film reminds one of Lubitsch films like Trouble in Paradise (the similar title is just a coincidence).

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The picture really gets cooking in the last few minutes in a car (and train) chase when our roguish heroes are pursued by a ridiculous number of policemen (which always tickles me — it’s funny because it’s true). One of the best gags has them about to run out of gas just as they encounter a gas tanker truck on the highway. They simply refuel without stopping! In the end they make it over the border to Mexico, not exactly a triumph for law and order, but satisfying somehow (I guess because the protagonists are so clever and charming).

There are no clips available online, but the DVD is available to purchase and it’s well worth it for silent comedy buffs. Just go here. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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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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Laurel and Hardy in “Men O’ War”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy comedy Men O’War (1929).

In this, one of their first sound shorts, the boys are a couple of sailors on shore leave, walking in a park. Some lost gloves create the opportunity for them to start up a conversation with a pair of cute girls and they go on a date to the soda fountain. (The soda jerk is played by James Finlayson in his first talkie, and boy does he ever make a lot of faces during his brief turn). The boys discover they only have 15 cents, enough for three drinks. Hardy’s solution is that Laurel should refuse a drink, but Stan keeps fouling things up, partially because he’s dumb, but also undoubtedly because he would really like a soda.

To Ollie’s shock, the tab turns out to be 30 cents, so he leaves Stan to deal with it. We fear disaster when Stan uses a nickel to play the slot machine, but he saves the day by winning. They can pay their tab, buy the girls several gifts and then take them out on the lake for a rowboat ride. Laurel rows first, botching the job so they keep going around in circles. Then Hardy gets involved and they continue going around in circles despite the fact that they try several rowing configurations. Then the boy set off a rash of capsizings and battles with seat cushions until eventually all is chaos…

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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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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Roscoe Arbuckle in “Fatty’s Plucky Pup”

Posted in Animal Acts, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 28, 2014 by travsd

 

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Roscoe Arbuckle comedy Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915). This was one in a series of comedies in which Arbuckle co-starred with canine star Luke the Dog. Another was Fatty’s Faithful Fido.

As he often does, in this film Roscoe plays a good-for-nothing layabout who lives with his mother (Phyllis Allen). He smokes in bed and starts a fire. Then he gives a dog a bath in a washtub, ruining the laundry. He is also fond of flirting with Lizzie the girl next door (Josephine Stevens). Later he brings Lizzie to an amusement part, where she will be kidnapped by a gang of shell game operators led by Edgar Kennedy. Luke the Dog alerts Fatty to the situation and the two of them (joined by the Keystone Kops) come to her rescue. The film contains a memorable shot of Mack Sennett’s famous treadmill-scrolling backdrop combo that gave a very cartoonish impression of the subject running (or riding a bike as the case may be) with the background going by behind them.

Here is a truncated version with an original jazz score by Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy: 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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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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New Hilton Sisters Documentary Opens Tonight!

Posted in Conjoined or Parasitic Twins, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

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Very excited! Bound By FleshLeslie Zemeckis’s new doc about the conjoined Hilton Sisters opens in New York (IFC Center) and in LA today! It’s also available on demand, so I think you know what will be on my agenda this weekend.

For my full article on the Hilton Sisters go here.

For my review of Zemeckis’s previous film Behind the Burley Q go here. 

And for the full scoop on Bound By Flesh, go here. 

Stars of Slapstick #188: Alberta Vaughn

Posted in Comediennes, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of silent comedy hotsy totsy Alberta Vaughn (1904-1992).

A native of Kentucky, she broke into film in 1921 in a Hal Roach short called Stop Kidding, then worked for several months at Century Film which released through Universal. By 1923 she was working for Mack Sennett as a Bathing Beauty, supporting the likes of Billy Bevan and Harry Langdon (including Picking Peaches and Smile Please. While there she was picked as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, which led to her starring series as the Telephone Girl for FBO (which eventually became part of RKO). (You can see one of these Telephone Girl comedies in Ben Model’s Accidentally Preserved DVD). From here she went on to do the “Go-Getter” , “Pacemaker”, “Mazie”  and “Fighting Hearts” series for FBO. Amongst all these series she managed to squeeze in the Joe Rock comedy The Sleuth (1925) with Stan Laurel:

From 1926 to 1928 she starred in features with names like Collegiate, Skyscraper and Backstage. From 1928 through 1930 (a period that embraces both silents and talkies) she co-starred in shorts with the now-forgotten Al Cooke. Through 1935 she appeared in a number of B movies westerns starring the likes of Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy and John Wayne. Her last picture was The Live Wire (1935). Unaccountably, here it is!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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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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Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush”

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

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925).

I first saw this film in a school assembly at around the time of its 50th anniversary. It was, I think, one of the formative experiences of my life. Though it would be over a decade before I saw the film again, its images stuck with me. In the intervening years I had no trouble conjuring practically every scene in the film: the shoe eating episode, the dance with the rolls, Big Jim’s hallucination of the Tramp as a giant chicken. But even without those dream-like touches, the film would have spoken to me. I came from an old-fashioned family, with deep American roots. I had been raised to romanticize that older world, the world of cabins and kerosene lanterns and pot-bellied stoves. I had often heard it spoken of and read about it in stories. Now here it was, palpably represented in scratchy sepia-toned images. My love of silent comedy began with The Gold Rush. 

The inspiration for this film came to Chaplin from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass during the Alaskan gold rush (1897-1899).

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This was an epic backdrop in which to place the Tramp.  Large scale films about punishing life in the wilderness were in vogue at the time.  Recent years had seen the success of Robert Flaherty’s Arctic documentary Nanook of the North (1922), major westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which has its climax in California’s Death Valley, perhaps the least hospitable spot for life on the globe.  As a parlor socialist, Chaplin surely also knew the works of Jack London, who’d actually taken part in the Alaskan gold rush and written about it in works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story “To Build a Fire”. 1923 had also seen the first of many remakes of The Spoilers, an Alaskan gold rush yarn based on the 1906 novel by Rex Beach. And even some comedians had dabbled in the genre, namely, Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Ben Turpin’s Yukon Jake (1924).

The Gold Rush (1925) gave Chaplin an opportunity to dramatize privations even greater than those he had depicted in The KidThe theme of the film is hunger: for food, for riches, for love.  At the center of it is the Tramp, one of the 100,000 prospectors who’ve descended on this remote, forbidding region in pursuit of big wealth. For his apparent ambitions he suffers mightily. Fleeing a blizzard, he must share a cabin with a wanted murderer named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and later spends several weeks starving with the man who will become his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). During this ordeal, the men resort to eating their own shoes for Thanksgiving dinner, and at a certain point McKay, crazed with hunger, mistakes the Tramp for a chicken and pursues him with an ax.

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Worse than the company of either of these two associates, however, is the specter of loneliness.

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The Tramp pines away for the love of the vivacious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) whom Charlie mistakenly believes is interested in him due to a series of cruel jokes and misunderstandings. In the end McKay and the Tramp strike it rich, and the Tramp gets his girl.

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 And the gorgeous art direction. There’s a reason many regard The Gold Rush as one of the greatest films of all time. It sticks in the craw. As I said, I first saw it at an elementary school assembly in the 1970s (my first silent film, in fact) and I swear, if I had never seen it again, I would still be able to recall every scene to this day. It is like The Wizard of Oz in that respect. A succession of highly memorable, dream-like scenes. There are the Chilkoot Pass, shoe eating and giant chicken scenes which we mentioned earlier. But there’s also the Tramp’s famous dinner table dance with forks and rolls (borrowed from Arbuckle’s similar routine in The Rough House.) Johnny Depp memorably paid tribute to this scene in Bennie and Joon (1993).

Other stuff! Charlie walking along a snow covered ledge, followed by a bear.

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Black Larsen falling to his death (like Snow White’s Wicked Queen) in a mountain ice collapse. And the high point of the movie, when McKay and the Tramp are trapped in a cabin that’s hanging half off a cliff, having been blown there by high winds during the night.

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The scene is an ingenious fusion of Lloyd’s Thrill Comedy and Keaton’s surreal visual sense. There is perhaps more than a little Keaton influence in the film overall, the extremely large canvas, the interest in scale. It is the only time in Chaplin’s career we find ourselves talking about “hundreds of extras”, “location shooting” and “battling the weather”. These are common enough facets of plenty of Hollywood shoots, but not Chaplin’s ordinarily.

Accordingly, it was Chaplin’s biggest budget film to date, but also his biggest grossing (over four million dollars, a lot for its day). The Gold Rush is hailed by many (including the director himself) as Chaplin’s masterpiece. I consider it the greatest of all silent comedies, and not just because it is the first one I ever saw.

Let the buyer beware! In 1942, Chaplin, flush with the success of his first talkie The Great Dictator, re-released a version of The Gold Rush containing his own musical score, a different ending, and narration by the man himself in the style of Peter and the Wolf. Trust me: that is NOT the version you want to see, although it tends to be the one that pops up most often. Though naturally Chaplin’s music is far better than that you will hear in the version below, the narration spoils the effect of the movie — takes you completely out of it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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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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Hall of Hams #77: Jeanne Eagels

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jeanne Eagels (Eugenia, Eagles, 1890-1929). Eagels legend today rests on her performance in the stage version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1922-26), in the shadow of which all subsequent Sadie Thompsons (Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth) were to suffer.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri Eagels joined the Dubinsky Brothers travelling stock company at age 12, initially as a dancer, but later working her way into speaking roles in the company’s repertoire of melodramas and comedies. A brief marriage to one of the Dubinksy Brothers failed, and Eagels made her way to New York, dyed her hair blonde, and reinvented herself as a chorus girl, eventually getting bit parts in Broadway shows, once again working her way up to speaking parts. By 1913 she also began appearing in films. While a success on both stage and screen by the late twenties she developed a reputation for being temperamental, unreliable and drunk. Her last stage Broadway play was Her Cardboard Lover (1927) with Leslie Howard, which ran for over four months. Then Equity suspended her for bad behavior and she returned to movies, making the talkies The Letter and Jealousy (both 1929). Her performance in the former earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but unfortunately by that time she was dead. Doctors were in disagreement as to whether the agent of her expiration had been alcohol, tranquilizers, or heroin — it may well have been all three.

The life of Jeanne Eagels was memorialized in the 1957 film Jeanne Eagels starring Kim Novack, although, as in all such films, it is wildly inaccurate in nearly every detail. Here is a scene from The Letter:

For more on early film history don’t miss 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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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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