Archive for March, 2015

Tomorrow on TCM: Joe E. Brown, Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, April Fool's Day, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Joe E. Brown, Movies with tags , , , on March 31, 2015 by travsd

In observation of April Fool’s Day, tomorrow morning and afternoon Turner Classic Movies will show several comedies starring the hilarious Joe E. Brown and the much less-hilarious team of Abbott and Costello. Time to lower your brows — and then lower them some more!


6:00am (EST) The Tenderfoot (1933)

Joe E. Brown plays a no-nonsense but nonetheless funny cowpoke who comes to New York with $20,000 in his satchel to invest in business. At first he seems like the kind of guy who can’t be taken, but then he falls for a spiel by some Broadway producers and gives them all his cash. Ginger Rogers is a Capraesque heroine who goes along with the scam against her conscience but then join forces with Brown. Eventually his crazy choices turn the show around and make it a hit. Furthermore he rescues the girl from a bunch of gangsters, chasing their car on horseback, firing his six guns all the way. In the end he brings her back to his texas hometown and marries her. The final shot, of three baby Joe E. Browns, is priceless


7:15am (EST) Son of a Sailor (1933)

Here, Brown (as he often did) plays a young man living in the shadow of a more distinguished father, in this case, a swab-o. The climax (later exhumed by Laurel and Hardy for Great Guns) has the lad accidentally being used for target practice. In the end, he foils a spy ring! The comedy also features Thelma Todd. 


8:30am (EST) Fireman, Save My Child (1932)

Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, Joe E. Brown had played professional baseball, a skill he puts to use in several of his comedies.  Here, he’s a small town fireman who absolutely loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy. The funniest scene in the picture occurs when he is showing his fire extinguishing bombs at a company but has brought the wrong bag and sets the office on fire, nearly burning the place down. (The scene seems very much modeled on W.C. Fields’ in So’s Your Old Man and You’re Telling Me!). Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.


9:45am (EST) Earthworm Tractors

Comedy with a caterpillar. Jeo e. Brown is impeccably cast here as a natural born salesman, unstoppably cheerful, tenacious and unfazed. At first he’s a peddler of gadgets. When he can’t marry his girlfriend because his estate is so lowly he sets his sights higher and decides, almost randomly, to sell earthworm tractors, i.e., bulldozers. He ends up making good. Along the way he falls in love with the daughter of his toughest customer (which is OK because his original girlfriend has married his rival). Much destructive slapstick with bulldozers. As an added bonus, Brown has one killer stunt that reminds us of his acrobat days, where takes a flying backflip off a tree swing and lands in the water.


11:00am (EST): 6 Day Bike Rider (1934)

A bespectacled Brown in another of his small town hick roles: he sings bass in the church choir and is the station agent at the local depot. The lad is engaged to a girl and becomes jealous when a big shot bike racer comes to town and stays at her boarding house and performs bike tricks at the local vaudeville house. Trying to best the rider, Brown heckles him during the vaudeville show and gets onstage and rides blindfolded. The rider takes the opportunity to walk off with his girl. Brown gets the whole town to form a posse and chase them, but it turns out the guy just brought her home, so Brown looks bad in front of the whole town. His girl throws him over for the other guy. He blows town and coincidentally joins a team which will be racing in a big 6 day bike race (a fad of the time, similar to marathon dancing). Brown winds up in jail for calling the police on the rider yet again (he thinks the girl is in his hotel room for immoral purposes). His time in the jug is preventing him from getting to the big race  in time. The girl relents (the other guy is a cad), and springs him from jail. Brown must first ride to the race on a bike to get there on time, a scene full of crazy stunts. He of course arrives just under the wire and wins the race and the girl. Over use of stock footage and process shots prevent this comedy from being as effective as it ought to be.


12:15pm (EST): Rio Rita (1942)

Abbott and Costello’s remake of the much more charming Wheeler and Woolsey original. The tropical tale is updated to incorporate Nazis but that doesn’t begin to relieve the tedium.


2:00pm (EST): Lost in a Harem (1944)

This is Abbott and Costello’s answer to The Road to Moroccoand…well, wouldn’t you much rather be watching that? Still there are some bonuses, including a riff on the old “Slowly I Turned” burlesque routine, and the lovely Marilyn Maxwell singing along with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. 


3:45pm: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood (1945)

Abbott and Costello take a convoluted course from being a barber and a porter to being big time Hollywood agents. It takes what feels like a thousand years for them to get there.  As a bonus, their old burlesque buddy Rags Ragsland shows up as himself.


5:15pm: (EST) Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)

A full color musical and co-starring Charles Laughton, who’d played Kidd before (although here he plays him more like his more famous screen character Captain Bly, a sort of terrifying monster). The pair work at an inn in jolly old England although they are plainly American. They find a treasure map for skull island and scheme to go there but they don’t need to, as they are shanghaied by Cap’n Kidd anyway. Laughton is vastly funnier than either Abbott and Costello are, effortlessly demonstrating what real talent and craft look like while they shiver in his shadow. There are a couple of boring nameless lovers who are supposed to be the main plot; waiting through their songs is interminable torture. Lots of battle scenes. Between the songs and the battles there’s about 5 minutes’ worth of comedy – exceedingly poor comedy


6:30pm (EST) Jack in the Beanstalk (1952)

Abbott and Costello’s first color film was a children’s fairy tale. There is no harm in showing it to your children (I certainly showed it to mine), but try not to accidentally watch any of it yourself. Despite the “it was all a dream” conceit, the film is no Wizard of Oz. In almost every conceivable way it is much more like the later Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). Trivia: the Giant is played by Buddy Baer, brother of boxer Max Baer (and thus uncle of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies). 

To learn more about early 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 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.


The Original Jobyna

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , on March 31, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of stage and screen actress Jobyna Howland (1880-1936)

Her unusual name was adapted from that of her father, Joby “Happy” Howland, who’d gained fame as the Drummer Boy of Shiloh, the youngest enlistee in the Civil War (11 when he enrolled). She began her career as a model (she was one of the original Gibson Girls) and found her way to the Broadway stage by 1904. Her two dozen or so Broadway credits included parts in such shows as McIntyre and Heath’s The Ham Tree (1905), the first edition of The Passing Show (1912), Ruggles of Red Gap (1915-1916), and the Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Boots (1923-1925). Though she was beautiful, her height (six feet tall) caused her normally to be cast as mothers and dames (Margaret Dumont roles) even when she was quite young.

In 1918, she made her first film Her Only Way, with Norma Talmadge. Only two more silent roles would follow; talkies would be much kinder to her. The silent screen’s bigger Jobyna would be Jobyna Ralston, leading lady for Harold Lloyd among others, whom, legend has it was named after Howland. Then, when sound came in, Ralston dropped out of films, and Howland became Hollywood’s reigning Jobyna. She was a frequent foil to Wheeler and Woolsey (The Cuckoos, Dixiana and Hook, Line and Sinker, all 1930); was in the all star screen adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime (1932) with Jack Oakie, Aileen MacMahon, Zasu Pitts, Louise Fazenda, and Gregory RatoffThe Cohens and Kellys in Trouble with Charlie Murray (1933), and the notorious pre-code bodice ripper The Story of Temple Drake (1933), written by William Faulkner. She died suddenly at age 56 of what is believed to have been a heart attack. Her brother Olin Howland was also a stage and screen actor.

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 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.


Trav S.D. Does “Gilbert and Sullivan” (and more!)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on March 30, 2015 by travsd
Friday April 3, 8pm, $10 suggested Donation
Barbes, 376 9th Street, Park Slope
Opera on Tap’s New Brew Series Presents:
The Curse of the Rat King: 
Trav S.D. (libretto) and David Mallamud (music) have been collaborating on this campy comic opera since 2010. It is a post-modern mash-up of Universal horror films, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the writings of Sigmund Freud, and numerous other elements. On the bill with him will be selections from Three Way, by Time Out New York and NY1’s David Cote (libretto) and Robert Paterson (music), which has been described as “a kind of NC-17 Il trittico”, and two works with lyrics by Untitled Theatre Company #61’s Edward EinhornThe Velvet Oratorio (music by Henry Akona) and Money Lab (music by Avner Finberg).
Featuring David Gordon, Seth Gilman, Anne Hiatt, David Macaluso, Cameron Russell, and Krista Wozniak with Christopher Berg tinkling the piano keys.

Tomorrow: Prohibition Saturday w/ the Avalon Jazz Band

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, Dixieland & Early Jazz, FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, Jazz (miscellaneous), Music, PLUGS with tags , , on March 27, 2015 by travsd


Tomorrow Morning on TCM: The 1973 “Lost Horizon”!!!!

Posted in CAMP, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , on March 27, 2015 by travsd


I canNOT contain my excitement. See those exclamation points in my header?

Set your DVR — tomorrow morning at 4:30am (EST), Turner Classic Movies will be screening a real rarity…the 1973 musical re-make of Lost Horizon. As I mentioned in this earlier post, this is reputedly one of the worst movies all time.

Written by Larry Kramer (yes, THAT Larry Kramer, who wrote The Normal Heart), it has songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a hallucination inducing cast that includes Peter Finch, Liv Ullman, Michael York, Sally Kellerman, George Kennedy and Bobby Van, with Charles Boyer as “The High Lama”, and Sir John Gielgud as “Chang”.

In fact, I may not set the DVR at all. I may just set my alarm clock for 4:25.

Barnum’s Best Bunkum #7: The Cardiff Giant

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , on March 25, 2015 by travsd


2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

Here is an example of Barnum at his most unprincipled, behaving in a way that anticipates the modern, monopolistic corporate ethos. Normally what we love and admire about Barnum is his imagination. In the case of the Cardiff Giant, Barnum essentially poached someone else’s idea. And yet the result was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

In 1869, the “petrified” remains of what appeared to be a ten foot tall man was discovered on the farm of one “Stub” Newell in upstate Cardiff, New York, not far from the Finger Lakes. A tent was erected, and admission was charged for viewings. People came from miles around to see the object. Unknown at the time, the “Giant” had been created at great trouble and expense by Newell’s cousin George Hull, who’d poured huge sums of money into the hoax, having had the stone for it brought all the way from Iowa, carved and distressed by experts, and then surreptitiously planted on Newell’s property where it would be “found” several months later. Despite the protests of scientists from every field who declared the thing a fake, a consortium of investors bought Newell and Hull out and began to exhibit the Giant in nearby Syracuse for even greater attention and profits. (The fact that the “Giant” was anatomically correct cannot have harmed ticket sales.)

As was his normal operating procedure when he heard about a good thing, Barnum tried to buy the Cardiff Giant from its present owners — who would not sell. Nothing daunted, Barnum had his own Cardiff Giant fabricated and began to exhibit it as the “real” one. Now he too was making huge amounts of money out of the Cardiff Giant. The proprietors of the original one attempted to sue him, but the judge ruled that since the first one had been a fake, there was no additional fraudulence in Barnum’s replica. Something seems kind of “off” about that ruling. This is why we say it is thought-provoking. What is a counterfeit of a counterfeit? Sounds like perfect fodder for Orson Welles’ F for Fake. 

At any rate, both Cardiff Giants were ten feet long and made of limestone. Hence, unlike many objects from 19th century museums and sideshows they were not easy to lose or in any way ephemeral. Which means…they still exist and you can still look at them. Hull’s original one resides at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I have seen it!


Meanwhile, Barnum’s one is said to reside at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in the Detroit/ Ann Arbor area.


Barnum’s Best Bunkum #6: The Unicorn

Posted in Animal Acts, BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show with tags , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by travsd


2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

In 1871, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, menagerie, Caravan and Circus presented an animal billed as the “Unicorn from Scripture”. At this stage, he’d done as much for 20 years. But here’s what patrons saw when they arrived:

unicorn (2)

Even in Barnum’s day naturalists and other scholars had speculated for ages that ancient accounts of unicorns were actually referring to early European impressions of the rhinoceros. In the poster above, Barnum says what it actually is. Could he be faulted if audiences were dumb enough to show up expecting to see the mythological beast depicted in the picture at the top of this post?

Furthermore, it is all technically quite correct. “Unicorn” literally means “one horn.” That is all the word means. Which is what allowed the corporate descendant of Barnum’s organization to dare to pull this stunt as late as the 1980s:


What folks saw at RBBB in the 1980s was a goat with one horn. Still, it’s technically correct. At the time there was a controversy and an uproar, and complaints about “fraud”, and so forth. I don’t know if there’s a sucker born every minute, but there are definitely 267 IDIOTS born every minute. As far as I am concerned, if you are buying tickets to a circus and don’t realize you are going to a SHOW, and then have the gall to complain at the efforts of the showfolk to ENTERTAIN you, you are a lower brute than any of the critters in the menagerie. If you come expecting to see the sort of mythological beast depicted in storybooks, and what’s more, expecting that to be GENUINE, there is a position available for you in the show. Here’s the last fellow we hired to fill the slot:

Koolookamba, 19th-Cent engraving

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