Archive for October, 2014

Charles King

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of (stage and, briefly screen) star Charles King (1886-1944. Some sources say born 1889).

Not to be confused with the western villain of the same name, THIS Charles “Charlie” King was born in New York and started out in minstrelsy and vaudeville before working his way up to Broadway in The Mimic World (1908). King was in over two dozen shows, including editions of The Passing Show and George White’s Scandals and George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly (1922), which made him a bona fide stage star.

Film buffs know him from his very brief stint as a star of MGM musicals: The Broadway Melody (1929), The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and Chasing Rainbows (1930) are all still shown from time to time. But after 1930 his day as a leading man in features was already done. This is often blamed on the passing of the early talkie vogue for musicals, but it goes deeper than that. I’ve seen all three of those movies; King can sing and he’s good looking, but his appeal is limited — he’s not such a convincing screen actor. And I notice that his last starring part is in a drama (Remote Control, 1930), so he was plainly TRIED at non-musicals. At any rate, the stage welcomed him back with open arms and he performed there and in night clubs until his early death in 1944 of pneumonia. (He was performing in London at the time — murder by climate!)

The Broadway Melody has terrific vaudeville/ tin pan alley scenes. Here’s Charles King at work:

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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Mae West’s First Movie: “Night After Night”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies with tags , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the first movie in which Mae West appeared, Night After Night (1932).

As you can see from the poster, she’s fourth billed in the picture, her presence there at all the result of her pal George Raft’s lobbying the studio (Paramount) on her behalf. Mae’s performance in the film is an object lesson for all of us: baby, when you get your big chance, do NOT blow it. West knew this was her one opportunity, and she picked up the ball and ran with it. She blazes across the screen as Raft’s ex-girlfriend Maudie, owner of a string of beauty parlors who gradually becomes fast friends with the gangster’s teacher, played by Alison Skipworth. The main plot is about Raft’s romance with a confused, depressed society girl played by Constance Cummings. Mae turns her minor role into a star turn, full of piss and vinegar.  She’s determined to make her mark and she does. She re-wrote her lines to suit her character, and they’re hilarious. She’s only in a few scenes, but she made such a huge impression that she immediately got signed to a contract. Her first starring vehicle was the smash hit She Done Him Wrong, which rapidly made Mae Paramount’s biggest earner. Overnight she became one of the highest paid women in the country. But it all started with Night After Night. Here’s a clip.

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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Laurel and Hardy in “Our Relations”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy feature Our Relations (1936).

While still farcical this is one of the team’s more sophisticated plots – – essentially The Comedy of Errors. In the film, the comedians each play a pair of brothers: a couple of henpecked husbands, and their twins, a pair of less domesticated, trouble-prone sailors. The domestic Laurel and Hardy are under the impression that their no-good brothers were hanged, leaving them all the more nonplussed when the brothers arrive in their town and start causing confusion. It is a most enjoyable ride. Long time Laurel and Hardy fans will appreciate the presence of Jimmy Finlayson and Daphne Pollard in the cast. Movie buffs will also recognize Alan Hale (senior) and Sidney Toler. 

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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Eddie Cantor and Gypsy Rose Lee in “Ali Baba Goes to Town”

Posted in Comedy, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on October 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Eddie Cantor comedy Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937).

This movie, while plenty funny, marks the end of Cantor’s flush period as a 30’s comedy star. After having starred in a talkie every year since 1930, the next movie after Al Baba wouldn’t be for three years, and thereafter his vehicles became less and less frequent. By this stage in his career Cantor was waxing stout and middle aged – – his traditional character didn’t suit him as well any more.

Ali Baba is essentially a remake of Cantor’s earlier screen hit Roman Scandals, except in this one (rather than ancient Rome) Eddie falls asleep as a movie extra on a film set for Arabian Nights and awakes as Ali Baba. The film is not a font of racial sensitivity—in addition to the constant lampoon of Arab culture, Cantor indulges in some very late blackface. But the jokes and music are good, and the plot moves along. Lots of rare topical humor at the EXPENSE of the New Deal as Eddie tries to remake the Sultan’s government. An eye-opener…criticisms about high taxes!  There were five writers on the project – – all Republicans, I’m guessing!

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Gypsy Rose Lee is also in the film as the Sultana, in only her second role as an attempted movie star under her real name Louise Hovick. Though I am naturally among her worshippers, it’s not hard to see why she never became a movie star (though a highly intelligent woman, she couldn’t, um, act. Whereas her siser June havoc could).

Also in the film – -wow! : crooner Tony Martin, John Carradine (as a thug), Douglas Dumbrille (as a Prince), Sidney Fields, Charles Lane, Jeni Le Gon, Hank Mann and Lee J. Cobb in bit parts, and dozens of the top stars of 1937 in cameos at a fictional movie premiere — including, hilariously enough, Eddie Cantor!

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. 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.

 

Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight”

Posted in British Music Hall, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s last indisputably great movie Limelight (1952).

Limelight was a victim of history twice over;. If not for two accidents of history one imagines the film would have been hailed by both press and public upon its release. But that’s not what happened. Chaplin’s last huge success had been The Great Dictator, over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, he had followed it up with Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie so deeply unpopular with the American public it single-handedly tanked what had theretofore been a spotless, almost infallible career. Chaplin was all but pilloried in the wake of Verdoux’s release, which is particularly a shame since the public was likely to have embraced his next film as Chaplin’s Triumphant Return if circumstances hadn’t prejudiced them against even checking it out.

Limelight (1952) is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian – a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from his default cinematic character, the Tramp) takes the stage. We finally get to see Chaplin’s flea circus routine (previously filmed in fragments in By the Sea and The Professor) in its entirety. And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film.

By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which his character dies. Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland. (This is the second accident of history I mentioned. This mishigas meant Limelight was never properly promoted or distributed in the U.S. after its initial release, leaving critics and audiences to discover it gradually over the ensuing decades).

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. 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.

 

Mabel Normand in “The Extra Girl”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on October 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Mabel Normand feature The Extra Girl (1923), produced by Mack Sennett. 

Mabel plays a small town girl who wants to go into films and has two suitors vying for her hand. One (Ralph Graves) whom she loves, another (played by Vernon Dent) who is horrible on every level, whom her father (George Nichols) is making her marry. Meantime she sends her headshot to a movie studio (and a pranking rival girl has replaced it with a photo of a movie star). The studio writes to her just as she is about to marry the man she hates. The other man helps her escape down a ladder, onto a wagon and onto a train, with the wedding party in hot pursuit. The section is filmed rather badly and contains no slapstick — a lost opportunity.

When Mabel gets to Hollywood, she is found to look different from her photo so she is made a prop and wardrobe girl but given a screen test (which fails). Meanwhile the boyfriend and her parents follow her out, thinking she is a star (thanks to her misleading letters). On her advice, the parents invest $15,000 with a shyster who loses all their money. Then there is a long section where she loses a lion on the set, causing much havoc, and she gets fired.

In an epilogue, it is the present day (most of the film occurred four years in the past, hence Mabel’s preposterous little girl Mary Pickford curls throughout the picture). Now we see her with a modern 20s bob, now married to her beau and with a kid. A decidedly reactionary moral: “My greatest role is wife and mother”. Homey don’t play that!

While the film is a bit on the ho-hum “straight comedy” side, there are lots of rewarding cameos and recognizable people in bit parts to keep it interesting, including Max Davidson as a tailor, Harry Gribbon as a film director, and William DesmondBilly Bevan and Ben Turpin as themselves. And it’s a cool behind-the-scenes window into the Hollywood of the 1920s. Well worth watching on that score.

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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Buster Keaton in “Convict 13”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Buster Keaton short Convict 13 (1920), co-directed by Eddie Cline. 

Keaton’s second released short, Convict 13, picks up on a related thematic thread begun in One Week and continued through all the rest of his work….fatalism, futility, life as a never-ending chain of absurd pieces of luck, either good or bad, whichever is funniest at the time. Keaton means it as a joke but his sense of humor is unintentionally symbolic.

In Convict 13, Buster is minding his own business playing golf when he is mistaken for an escaped prisoner, caught and hauled “back” to a prison from which he’d never escaped.  In the penitentiary, as he awaits his impending execution (he still hasn’t done anything wrong) he manages to steal a guard’s uniform. Unfortunately, he does so just when there is a prison riot and a rogue convict is knocking out all the guards. Buster then quells the riot and is made assistant warden of the prison. I remind you, all he was doing originally was playing golf.

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. 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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