Archive for November, 2014

W.C. Fields in “It’s a Gift”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2014 by travsd

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November 30 is the anniversary of the release date of the W.C. Fields comedy It’s a Gift (1934), which is today one of the best known and loved films from Fields’s Paramount period. Based on several stage sketches from Field’s Broadway years (strung together into a slim modicum of a plot), the film casts him as Harold Bissonette, a long-suffering husband, father and grocer who decides to pull up stakes and start a California orange grove. Many of the film’s most famous scenes revolve around the theme of Fields the Martyr. In one, he (unsuccessfully) tries to prevent the blind man Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) from destroying his shop. In another he tries to sleep on his back porch and is constantly being awakened and interrupted,a bit he’d also used in the silent It’s the Old Army Game. Of course Baby Leroy is present to add to his torture, as is Kathleen Howard, playing one of a long line of Fields’s shrewish wives. Norman McLeod directed.

Here it is, a comedy scene I’ve loved since I was a teenager:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please 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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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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W.C. Fields in “The Bank Dick”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of  W.C. Fields‘ second-to-last starring film from his brilliant late period at Universal: The Bank Dick (1940), directed by Eddie Cline.

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Fields as Egbert Sousé (accent grave over the E) does his damnedest to stall bank examiner Mr. Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn)

One of Fields’ most subversive and hilarious films (undoubtedly because he was old and sick and no longer gave a damn) Fields lays into small town hypocrisies and even (as he would do with even more force in his last film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) Hollywood itself. Fields gets away with murder in this film, naming his favorite watering hole The Black Pussy, and telling young Og Ogilvy (Grady Sutton) that his name “Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” — what can he be referring to but a fart? Somehow this stuff got past the censors, as did Fields’ much more dangerous example as a human being — getting the bank examiner (hilariously played by Franklin Pangborn) drunk so he won’t notice the money Fields (the bank’s security guard) embezzled so that he can invest in the Beefsteak Mines. The terrific ensemble includes Shemp Howard (who really sacrificed a decent solo career when he stepped in to bail out the Stooges–see here), Jack Norton and Una Merkel, among many others. A couple of nods to Mack Sennett here too.

Here’s one of my favorite recurring gags from the film, indeed, one of my favorite gags of all time, the “hearty handclasp”:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please 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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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Laurel and Hardy in “Another Fine Mess”

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

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Laurel and Hardy comedy Another Fine Mess (1930), directed by James Parrott. The film is essentially a sound remake of the team’s earlier silent short Duck Soup.  In this version, the pair (wanted for vagrancy) escape from cops and fortuitously jump into mansion just as the people who live there are leaving (the owner, Jimmy Finlayson is going on an extended trip on safari.) Hardy masquerades as the the owner of the house and Laurel, as both the butler and the maid. They are forced into this subterfuge when visitors arrive to rent the house themselves. In the end, Finlayson return, they get found out and escape on a tandem bicycle covered in a bearskin, one of the more memorable images in all their films.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please 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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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Posted in Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , on November 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of television and film actress Hope Lange (1933-2003). Already I hear you saying, “Good God, man, have you gone insane? How does television and film actress Hope Lange rate a post on this excellent blog?!” Well, first she already has. She was in the Elvis movie Wild in the Country, which we blogged about here.  Plus, her father was Flo Ziegfeld’s musical director! But secondly. as the title indicates, she starred in the short-lived tv sit-com, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968-1970).

The show was based on the eponymous 1947 film which had starred Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison and was in turn based on a 1945 novel by R.A. Dick. The show is interesting in being a sort gender reversal of the usual magic fantasy formula we associate with Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie and Nanny and the Professor. Much like Doris Day in her sit-com (which launched the same year) Lange played a widow and mother…only this one is haunted by a 19th century Maine sea captain (Edward Mulhare). As in the other magical shows, there is some romantic tension of a sort, with the family-friendly time-space barrier preventing any consummation…at least in this world. To properly update this series I’m afraid the producers of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir would have to go here. 

But they didn’t. And despite two Emmy awards for Lange (and the presence of Charles Nelson Reilly), the series didn’t click with audiences. NBC cancelled it after its first season. ABC picked it up and then cancelled it again after its second season. And then, much like the ghost of Captain Gregg, it lived on…in re-runs, which is how I first saw it a few years later.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on November 28, 2014 by travsd

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With portions of the country under six feet of snow, and many other regions just beginning to feel the bite of winter (still technically three weeks away), one can always console oneself with the comforting apopthegm: “Well…it could be worse.” For one could be living on the bottom of the earth, where winter temperatures can reach -120 degrees fahrenheit and and at certain points of the year “night” can stretch on for weeks at a time. Werner Herzog took us there in his award-winning 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, which focused mostly on the diverse investigations of scientists at several locations on Antarctica including McMurdo Station, Mount Erebus, the South Pole itself, and several temporary camps. But many stories remains to be told. Antarctica: A Year On Ice (released today in selected theatres throughout the country) offers a very different perspective.

Film-maker Anthony Powell is a year-round resident of McMurdo Station, America’s main Antarctic facility and the largest human settlement on the continent (The population of McMurdo is ca. 1,200 in summer, 700 in winter. Total Antarctic population in summer is ca. 5,000, distributed at 30 different internationally sponsored sites, all for the purposes of science.) Powell works as a radio technician, a job that routinely subjects him to the most brutal weather conditions on earth. What would be traumatic and maybe fatal to most of us, is just another day at the office for Powell. But unlike the biologists and volcanologists and such in Herzog’s movie, Powell’s important work comes more under the heading of “support”. He’s Antarctica’s “Wichita Lineman”, the guy who makes all internal and external communication possible. It’s no less important (or less dangerous) in the long run; none of these discoveries could be made without everyone on the team. Powell’s film focuses on the experiences of the people whose choose to do fairly ordinary jobs in the most extraordinary of terrestrial environments: a book-keeper, a fire fighter, a chef, a store keeper, an administrative assistant, an operations manager, a guy who works in a warehouse, and yes, a helicopter pilot (which in Antarctica is the equivalent of a taxi driver). Powell interviews these quiet adventurers extensively over the period of one year, showing their reactions to the changing of seasons, and the comings and goings of seasonal employees. These changes as you can imagine can be quite emotional — the station is cut off from the rest of the world for the entire winter. For long stretches during the worst months, people can’t even go outside, and have to make an extraordinary effort to hang on to their sanity. (Fortunately the traditional morale boosters seem to work: parties, contests, practical jokes, even a carnival). And there is the ultimate side benefit, and the reason they are all there: the beauty of the place, which Powell captures so wonderfully with his recording equipment: the absolute silence to be enjoyed just a short distance from the station, the charming wild life, the ice and rock formations, the starry sky (so clear that you can see many stellar features with the naked eye that are normally only visible with a telescope), and as the picture above hints, auroras. Consolation aplenty one might think for the loneliness and monotony of polar life. And lest you begin to get too bored, there’s the occasional terror of trying to stay alive during a winter storm. “There’s usually at least one Category Five storm per year,” observes Powell. Trying sitting one of THOSE out in your corrugated tin cabin!

Harold Lloyd in Dr. Jack

Posted in Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , on November 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Harold Lloyd film Dr. Jack (1922).

Dr. Jack is easily my least favorite (and the weakest) of Lloyd’s features. He plays a commonsense small-town doctor who exposes a quack’s efforts to mislead a beautiful young girl into believing she’s sick. It’s straight from the Douglas Fairbanks playbook (it’s very similar to his 1917 feature Down to Earth). The film has very little slapstick to it, has very little forward momentum, and the formula is all wrong for Lloyd. As always, individual gags are good. One of his movies has to be worst, and for my money, this one is it. Recommended only for completionists, and/or folks who have already seen Lloyd’s more famous features, as this would not be a fair or representative introduction to the comedian’s work.

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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“Nefertitty in Space” and Why Lola Rock’N’Rolla is Our Favorite Film-maker

Posted in African American Interest, CAMP, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by travsd

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I don’t think it’s too much to say that Lola Rock’N’Rolla is now my favorite film-maker. The Mad Marchioness and I attended the world premiere of Lola’s new opus Nefertitty in Space at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, and only just now am I recovering from the onslaught of camp excellence, let alone the excitement of seeing so much burlesque, drag and variety royalty all in one place: Hovey Burgess, Murray Hill, World Famous Bob, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, David Bishop, Legs Malone etc etc etc not to mention the film’s star The Maine Attraction who sat behind us with her highly supportive mom.

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Maine almost falls on top of me with her drink

“I just wanna be John Waters!” Lola declared at the end of the festivities…and we do indeed need someone to fill that niche now, have needed that for TEN BLOODY YEARS, because that is when Waters made his last friggin’ movie (his most recent planned film project, a Christmas movie called Fruitcake died in the oven back in 2008). But there is so much of her own that Lola brings to the table that I think calling her the heir to John Waters would be selling her short (as much as we need an heir to John Waters). For one, her love of genre seems wider, deeper and more ambitious than Waters, who has always been pretty strictly focused on exploitation films. In a manner that reminds me of the Kuchar Brothers, her “B movies” attempt big budget spectacle, and she dares pay homage to classics with reach beyond cult aficionados.

Her first film Dragzilla (2002) is like an opening salvo in a campaign to conquer the underground, one cardboard building at a time:

Then there is her zombie send-up Night of the Living Gay (2006):

And who could forget I Was a Tranny Werewolf (2009):

Whereas Waters is a genius of effect, and certainly a genius of comedy, there is something to be said for the focused messaging of Lola’s films. Like Waters, she is a gay film-maker. In her films she frequently returns to the theme of queer people and other outsiders as monsters, and ridicules that representation, which in the end amounts to a simultaneous catharsis, exorcism and celebration.

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In the Nefertitty series, she ups the ante by helping us do the same thing about race. In these blaxploitation send-ups, burlesque star The Maine Attraction plays the titular ‘titty, a foul-mouthed, street-wise ghetto chic SOMETHING. Is she even a cop or a private eye like Pam Grier’s characters? I don’t think so. I think she’s just herself: Nerfertitty, a blaxploitation heroine qua blaxploitation heroine (I said “heroine”, not “heroin”).

Now, this is a genre ripe for parody. In fact even when it was originally in full-bloom, the classics of the genre were usually smart self-parodies, 1972’s Blacula being the supreme example. Mel Brooks went there early with Blazing Saddles (1974), although he flinched from going all out (originally the film was to have starred Richard Pryor — that would have been a VERY different movie). Then Keenan Ivory Wayans went there for real in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), Quentin Tarantino produced a loving tongue-in-cheek homage in Jackie Brown (1997), and Scott Sanders created a dead-on formal spoof in Black Dynamite (2009). (Judging by that time-table it looks like the world wants a blaxploitation satire flick every ten years).

The original Nefertitty joint came out in 2011:

Several things about Nefertitty set it apart. One is context. This is a Lola Rocknrolla film. We know there’s more to it than a stand-alone goof because we have her whole body of work to look at, and it’s plain from the way she tells the story. There is no pussyfooting here. The film-maker and her actors jump with both feet into stereotype (both black and white) like it was a swimming pool full of champagne. But there is something else at work. Blaxploitation has always been a complicated genre (as have many previous forms of American show business). At best it’s an unresolveable question. Yes those historical films back in the early ’70s did emphatically NOT depict a lot of black doctors, statesmen, philosophers and rocket scientists, but instead a bunch of pimps, hookers, junkies and drug dealers (and, the brothers and sisters who bust them). But on the other hand, the form was chic, its stars were admired and set the fashions throughout the show biz world for the entire decade. For better or worse, people EMULATED these films. And this was the first time in history black Americans had a widespread cinematic format in which to take chances, stretch their legs, and just BE….as opposed to playing menials, servants and sidekicks in a “white story”. And though blaxploitation films were the farthest thing from a representative “black story”, they were a mainstream forum for black acting, black music, and black culture in general. There is a certain palpable joy and liberated energy in these movies. (We watched Shaft, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and the Blacula films on TCM just a few weeks ago, so it’s all fresh in my head.) As Nerfertitty, Maine Anders broadcasts that exhilarating feeling of “owning it” that is the whole performance style. Then she compounds that feeling with the giddy gas of getting to send it up, all done with a wicked, mischievous gleam in her eye worthy of Arlecchino.

The other major stereotype in blaxploitation films is, duh, whites, invariably rendered as uptight assholes, clueless idiots, white collar criminals, shifty public officials, wanna-be fascists, and sometimes wanna-be blacks. Playing it this way was a stroke of genius on the parts of producers (apart from any intentional character defamation they may have engaged in): it struck the perfect balance between manipulating the resentments of black audiences, and stoking the sublimated guilt feelings of white ones. Lola goes here big time in both Nefertitty films. In fact, the big plague infecting the ghetto in the first Nefertitty is an insidious cocaine that turns the user into an albino honky. And here is Anders as an ofay police captain in Nefertitty in Space (like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence she plays multiple characters in both films):

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Second is that, as always (and this is something that Lola can definitely be said to have inherited from Waters, and others such as Russ Meyers) she turns the heat WAY the hell up on the playing style. Here too (I’m assuming) she’s a conscious heir to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which developed an entire playing style along these lines (and Lola has also done theatre, a show called Homo: The Musical.) This isn’t mere acting; this is PERFORMANCE. This is SHOW BIZ. It’s a movie as a “movie”, with no reality beyond the line-by-line, shot-by-shot immediate need to entertain and engage the audience. If your attention flags while watching this movie, you have issues and you probably need to check in someplace where they give you a pill and a plastic cup of water twice a day.

And, as always, Lola smashes in other genres and brings her insane imagination to bear, which takes this far, far beyond the realm of mere blaxploitation spoof, because no blaxploitation flick ever did anything as weird or as outre as smashing together blaxploitation with gay camp with Star Wars, as she does in Nefertitty in Space, in which the villain is the World Famous Bob as a floating, topless, tassled torso, who uses her breasts as a “white sabre”, shooting a ray that turns her victims into valley-girl talkin’ crackers. It’s clever casting indeed to give a gal named ‘titty an arch nemesis like World Famous Bob, whose pendulous jugs are the Eighth and Ninth Wonders of the World.

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At all events, here’s the trailer to the new film. It’s just about to make the rounds on the festival circuit and I’ll warrant it’ll soon be available online as well. Bottom line: all hail Lola Rock’N’Roller, whose movies put the spring back in my step big time.

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