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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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #86: 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!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in Comedy, Laurel and Hardy with tags , , , , on November 27, 2014 by travsd

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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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