Today is the birthday of Eddie Buzzell (1895-1985).
Brooklyn-born Buzzell broke into vaudeville at the age of 13 in a Gus Edwards kiddie act, along with Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, et al. After this, he was one half of the comedy, song and dance duo Buzzell and Parker. He was still with partner Peggy Parker when he made his Broadway debut in Broadway Brevities of 1920. After this he began to be cast as a solo performer, appearing in a half dozen Broadway shows throughout the 1920s.
In 1929 he was cast as the title character in the film of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones and thereafter Hollywood was his home. (A little fellow, and a skilled song and dance man, Buzzell was a natural stand-in for Cohan himself, who by now was too old to play the role he had created). From here he went to starring in Vitaphone shorts.
Unusually, he began directing his own starring shorts quite early (1931), then rapidly became just a director, moved to Columbia and eventually to MGM. It sounds like a meteoric rise, and in a fashion, it was, although when you look through his IMDB page you find a uniquely undistinguished heap of turkeys. Today he is best known for directing two of the Marx Brothers worst films, At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). It’s hard to know where to place the blame for those horrible movies. The scripts are so bad, and the projects themselves so wrongly conceived that it’s not fair to lay all the blame at Buzzell’s feet. Interestingly, however there does seem to have been some major culture clash on the set, despite the fact that Buzzell and the Marxes had been professional chums for decades, ever since their vaudeville days. Buzzell argued with the brothers on the set about matters of comedy, and usually got his way — as is plain from the distinctly un-Marxian garbage that wound up on screen. Among the dozens of other stinkers Buzzell made through 1961, the other one that pops out as being notable here is the Esther Williams–Red Skelton team-up Neptune’s Daughter (1949).
The world would probably have been better off with Buzzell before the camera rather than behind it.
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.