Archive for September, 2014

A Short History of Evil Ventriloquism in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just in time for Halloween.

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The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because there was both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).

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The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.

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Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:

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The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….

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The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.

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Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery in Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.

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Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far worse than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.

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The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.

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Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.

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Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.

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Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 

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Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!

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VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.  http://www.bookdepository.com/Ventriloquist-Two-Plays-Rick-Mitchell/9780983925590

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The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John in “Oh Doctor!”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Comique comedy short Oh Doctor! (1917) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and featuring Buster Keaton and Al St. John. 

In this one Arbuckle plays the titular Doc, who has both a betting and a lady problem. The most rewarding feature of the film however is Buster Keaton as the doctor’s son, a little dandy who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. The bit has a feeling of polish to it — one wonders if it was something he brought with him from vaudeville. At any rate, it’s a rare chance to see Buster express any emotion on film.

Arbuckle brings the family to a horse race where Al St. John and his vamp accomplice (Alice Mann) are inspired to fleece him. Later St John will pose as a patient and steal a necklace from the doctor’s home. In the end, Roscoe dresses as a policeman to catch the crook (just because) and ends up making a ton of loot.

To learn more about comedy film history please 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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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Stan Laurel in “Roughest Africa”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo) on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Stan Laurel solo comedy short Roughest Africa (1923).

Laurel’s best solo comedies tend to be parodies; this one is a send-up of travelogues, already a non-fiction cinematic staple since the earliest days of the movies. The African setting is an excellent one for gags and later teams like Abbott and Costello, and Wheeler and Woolsey, would later follow up on the lines of investigation begun by Laurel and his cohort Jimmy Finlayson here. The elaborate sets and exotic creatures in the film make me speculate that some arrangement was made by Hal Roach to piggyback onto another producer’s production, but that’s just speculation on my part. I’ve found nothing that affirms that.

The most striking aspect of the film to most modern viewers will be the racist portrayals of the explorer’s native African “bearers”. It’s important to keep in mind both that such portrayals were near universal at the time, and that this film is a parody of other existing films. Roach’s Our Gang franchise ought to balance out the karma somewhat.

Because this is a parody of a plotless cinematic form, it’s mostly just a succession of gags. The bulk of the comedy highlights a series of encounters with animals. A porcupine shoots quills at Laurel. A bear lick’s Fin’s face, then they wrestle. An ostrich chases Laurel (beware, Stan! You know what happened to Billy Ritchie!). Then bear chases all of them. Bear falls down trap. Then laurel falls down same one (monkey pulls lever). After much more shenanigans with the bear, they meet up with an elephant, a lion, then more lions, then crocodiles, then a skunk. As comedy fans know, after you have encountered a skunk, there is nowhere ot go but home,

To learn more about comedy film history please 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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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Harold Lloyd in “By the Sad Sea Waves”

Posted in Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the released date of the early Harold Lloyd “glasses” comedy By the Sad Sea Waves (1917).

The title may refer to any of the By the Sad Sea Waves that came before: an 1850 song by Jules Benedict, an 1894 song by Lester Barrett and Lester Thomas, popularized by Vesta Tilley; or the “ragtime opera” produced by Mathews and Bulgar in 1898.

In Harold’s version, a brawny life guard is beating Harold’s time with a girl (Bebe Daniels) so he masquerades as a lifeguard so he can rate. A couple of fake rescues, then he rescues the girl for real. They pair up in the end, pursued, for some reason, by a cop. Snub Pollard also stars.

To learn more about comedy film history please 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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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “The Man from Painted Post”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks comedy The Man from Painted Post (1917).

The movie is a clever twist on the usual Fairbanks formula. Instead of playing a guy who starts out as a milksop and then grows hair on his chest, he plays an actual detective with the Cattleman’s Association who goes UNDERCOVER as such a man, pretending that he has no western experience or skills in order to catch rustlers (forshadowing his later role as Zorro in two movies). The back story is that a certain bad guy killed his sister and gave him a scar. Now Fairbanks comes around as “Fancy Jim”, pretending to be a greenhorn from Maryland, who can’t ride, rope or shoot. Drinks tea, is deceptively polite. The rustler he is after kidnaps a schoolmarm (Eileen Forbes) with evil intent. Fairbanks brings him to justice and rides off into sunset with the girl.  While ostensibly a comedy in the usual early Fairbanks mode (and it does have its funny moments especially in the opening beats), the film cleaves so closely to the straight western formula, that it essentially is one. Thus it points ahead to Fairbanks later work at United Artists as a straight ahead action hero.

To learn more about early film history please 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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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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 Bond”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by travsd

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September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds.”

The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

To learn more about comedy film history please 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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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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“Say Goodnight, Gracie” Tonight and Tomorrow

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight and tomorrow night, Alan Safier stars as George Burns in the one man show Say Goodnight, Gracie at the Queens Theatre. For info and tickets go here. 

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