Archive for June, 2015

A Kernel of Insight That Ought Be Obvious, But Apparently Isn’t

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME with tags on June 30, 2015 by travsd
It's intended ironically, I tell you!  Ironically!

It’s intended ironically, I tell you! Ironically!

Occasionally I find my social media statuses growing so elaborate they become blogposts. This is one of them, from yesterday. 

A question from a guy in one of the (Facebook) movie groups: “Are these films any good? They only get five out of ten stars in the ratings”….in other words, he only watches movies based on what other people think. A lady in response to my trashing of the theatrical production of The 39 Steps: “But it was so good on Broadway! I wonder what happened to it.” These two people have the same misconception — that the opinions of others have OBJECTIVE reality. Now, a critic at least has what I call “judgment”. Ideally he/ she is at least well-informed and might be able to offer guidance as to why he / she took pleasure in an experience and why you might too, or even why he/she thought an artist possessed skill.

But even that informed opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. Art is not a sports play. The runner is never “safe” or “out”. If you are basing your choices on EITHER word of mouth OR a critic’s two cents you’re really not giving yourself much credit. How about having a MIND OF YOUR OWN, being aware of your own proclivities and buying tickets based on your own tastes? And judging for yourself whether something appeals to you or not. There is no “good” or “bad”. I assure you that I love HUNDREDS of films others find bad, and I can argue, quite intellectually, why they are the greatest pieces of art since the Sistine Ceiling. And at the same time my threshold of tolerance for shows and movies that might be called popular successes is quite low. I walked out of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson after ten minutes — the laughter of the audience was like fingernails on chalkboard to me. I can’t think of any stupider, denser question than “Will I like this?” How the hell should I know? How can anyone know? I’m not YOU.

A History of the Comedy Western #2: 1930s-40s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , on June 30, 2015 by travsd

This is part two of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here. 

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The Fighting Parson (1930)

A Harry Langdon short for Hal Roach. A western town is expecting one “Fighting Parson” to arrive on a stage coach to help clean up their town. Coincidentally, traveling musician Harry arrives on an empty coach (it was robbed) so they all assume it’s him.  This being one of Langdon’s first talkies, it showcases many of his old vaudeville skills we didn’t get to hear in the silents, e.g., he plays and sings “Frankie and Johnny” on banjo  and he does a dance.  And despite the fact that he is not really the Fighting Parson, he does manage to clean up the town.

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Girl Crazy (1932)

Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, based on a Broadway show but altered considerably. (I toyed with including their first vehicle Rio Rita here as well, but its Mexican setting was contemporary and mostly non-comical; the boys carried the comical sub-plot. Comic relief in westerns is a whole ‘nother post).

Girl Crazy has a contemporary setting as well, but the western and comedy elements are merged, thus it qualifies. It is set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. The story was later remade in a very different version 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. HONORABLE MENTION: Wheeler and Woolsey’s movie Diplomaniacs released in 1933, has a first act set on an Indian reservation, but the film is more a political satire than a comedy western.

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Make Me a Star (1932)

The highlight of this adaptation of Merton of the Movies is a “movie within the movie” , a hilarious western parody starring Stuart Erwin — who is deceived by Joan Blondell and Sam Hardy into thinking he is appearing in a straight western. Ben Turpin as his co-star should have been the big tip-off!

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The Gold Ghost (1934)

A Buster Keaton short for Educational.  And we fudge a little to include this — it’s actually in the “ghost town” subgenre, a sort of hybrid of comedy western and spook comedy. Buster is a rich playboy whose father wants him to marry a certain girl. The girl hates him and loves his rival. Buster is depressed and goes for a ride in car. He winds up in  the Nevada desert (he had started in Massachusetts). He finds himself in a ghost town called Vulture City, which has a real vulture!. He doesn’t notice it’s empty at first. He tries to check in to an abandoned hotel, and idly puts sheriff badge and gun on. Meanwhile a wanted gangster crashes his airplane nearby. Meanwhile Buster goes into the saloon, where the player piano starts to play. He encounters a ghost dance hall girl and a ghost outlaw. Then, some nearby prospectors strike gold. The town is suddenly over run with living humans and Buster tussles with some crooks who mistake him for an actual sheriff.

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Goin’ to Town (1935)

Saloon singer Mae West inherits an enormous ranch from her husband (murdered by rustlers on their wedding day) that turns out to have oil on it. The first few scenes constitute the bulk of the “western” element, from here it shifts to a melodrama comedy about an oil fortune, Argentine aristocrats and Mae’s efforts to fit in with cultured sells on Long Island. But the opening beats — definitely western!

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Horse Collars (1935)

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Three Stooges hold the record for the most comedy westerns. I included as many as I could find in this and the next post. If I missed any please let me know! In this one they play three detectives (naturally all dressed in Holmesian deerstalkers) who come west to help young Nell retrieve the stolen deed to her ranch. They have a secret weapon (of sorts). Curly goes berzerk whenever he sees a mouse. Only cheese will calm him down, thus the refrain “Moe! Larry! The Cheese!”. This is a bit they would use in several of their films.

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Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936)

See? What’d I tell ya? The Three Stooges are a trio of cheating gamblers, who must flee Lobo City after Curly is caught using a shoe magnet to control a roulette wheel. They paddle out to the woods in sped-up canoes and disguise themselves as Indians. Unfortunately, Curly has chosen to dress as a squaw, which proves most inconvenient when a roughneck comes to their camp and falls in love with him. The two are all set to be married when Curly’s wig slips and they are on the run again. In the end, they think they have escaped — but it turns out they have locked themselves into the town jail.

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Goofs and Saddles (1937)

In this one, the Three Stooges play Buffalo Bilious (Curly), Wild Bill Hiccup (Moe) and Just Plain Bill (Larry), three undercover scouts for the US cavalry sent out to foil a bunch of cattle rustlers. (What does the army care about rustlers? Never mind, just go with it). When their carrier pigeon is intercepted and their identities revealed, they flee on a covered wagon. But the bad guys catch up to them and a shoot-out ensues. Fortunately, Curly creates a makeshift gatling gun out of a meat grinder, and the rustlers are soon dispatched.

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Way Out West (1937)

Laurel and Hardy classic; one of the best known of the comedy western genre. This charming genre spoof has Stan and Olllie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn).

The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalan Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them.

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

Another great screenplay template; one of the most magical of all Hollywood films. Seems very much informed by screwball comedy, feels very Capraesque (it was directed by George Marshall). A comedy western with a serious plot (which it takes seriously) in an age when westerns weren’t very serious! Screwball/Capra feeling reinforced by the cast: Jimmy Stewart (not yet identified with westerns) and a bunch of familiar comical character actors (I’m looking at you, Mischa Auer!)

The fictional town of Bottleneck is ridiculously wild at the outset. Complete chaos: Sodom and Gomorrah. Marlene Dietrich is “Frenchy” the dance hall girl. She sings songs with witty lyrics by Frank Loesser: “Little Joe”, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” and others. In the opening scene, there’s a poker game. A farmer bets his whole farm and then frenchy abets a cheat, spilling coffee in his lap so they can switch cards on him. The guy tells the sheriff. The sheriff confronts the guys and gets killed. The mayor, a tobacco chewing crook, is in the pocket of the gang. He appoints the town drunk (a former deputy) as sheriff as a patsy (Charles Winninger). He decides to fool them by doing a good job, so he sends for the son of his old sheriff, a man who has the reputation of cleaning up Tombstone: Destry (Stewart).

When Destry arrives he makes a terrible impression: holding a canary cage and a parasol for a lady, telling folksy stories. One of the most awesome scenes ever: when he disarms the gang leader (Brian Donlevy) coolly by telling him he doesn’t carry guns. confuses him, even scares him for a minute, seems like a standoff. Their laughter is nervous at first, but Destry becomes a laughing stock nonetheless. At first he seems a sort of Holy Fool, like Dostoievski’s The Idiot. Destry is Christ-like, peaceful, pacifistic, gentle, and unafraid to seem ridiculous, because he is so secure in the knowledge that his way is right.

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But the storytellers don’t follow through on this idea (I’m not sure it’s ever really been done). As in Shane, High Noon, Angel and the Badman, Liberty Valance, etc. we quickly revert to the lesson that guns are the only way to get the job done. After assuring the sheriff that he is serious about staying here and helping, no matter what anyone thinks about him, we learn his secret. Out on the street, some ruffians are firing off their guns. Destry borrows their pistols for a second and demonstrates his aim, which terrifies them into submission. The main thrust of the story has to do with the principle guy snatching everyone’s farms so that he can charge cattlemen fees for passing through his property. Destry sets about foiling this plot, but more importantly wants to get to the bottom of the sheriff’s murder. When they find the body of the sheriff, he has what he wants, and sends for a federal judge so a proper trial can happen. There is a big shootout between the good guys and the bad guys, with the comical arrival of the women armed with kitchen and farm implements to stop the shooting. The head of the crooks gets shot. So does Frenchy, which is most convenient. She has been Destry’s love interest, with much sexual tension, and she begins to help him towards the end. But it wouldn’t be fitting for him to wind up with a “bad woman”. She is a sort of a “holy whore” worthy of Eugene O’Neill, and dies a martyr’s death. In the end, Destry will wind up with the sweet, wholesome girl he met on the stagecoach coming in. The town is now peaceful and law-abiding.

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Maisie (1939)

The first in the film series with Ann Sothern as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl Maisie. This one has a contemporary western setting: Maisie has to blow town quick and goes to take a job performing out west. When she gets there the job has folded, so she is stranded and has to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch and tries to make a play for Young. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident, and they kiss and plan to marry. This purportedly light comedy eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch!

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Yes, We Have No Bonanza (1939)

A hilarious Three Stooges comedy, with the trio as singing waiters in a saloon, who devise a plot to marry three cowgirls by prospecting for gold. They actually find some, but it turns out to be the buried stash of some bank robbers. In one memorable scene, they think their mule “Yorick” has eaten all the dynamite.

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Go West (1940)

I am a Marx Brothers fan but unfortunately  this has to be rated as their worst film. They are fish out of water, and that might be fine in a comedy, but for the fact that the script and direction are all stinkeroo. It’s enlivened somewhat towards the end by some uncharacteristic physical gags devised by Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin, but it’s too little, too late. For my extended rant on the sins of this picture, go here. 

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My Little Chickadee (1940)

While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends (W.C. Fields and Mae West), the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications(read much more about it here). In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meek , merely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day. Read my full post on the film here. 

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Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)

Fred Allen challenges Jack Benny (playing himself) to prove all his boasting on radio show about his adventures on his Nevada ranch, so he sets out to do so, taking his cast (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson“, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Andy Devine) with him.  This comedy was one of the top ten box office hits of 1940.

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The Westerner (1940)

Absolutely magic, a perfect movie directed by William Wyler. It deserves to be revered as a classic but somehow has fallen by the wayside. It’s more of a western comedy/ melodrama but there is a tone to it that makes me want to include it here, and both Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan are playing their “A” game, rocking their symbolically freighted characters, with much comedy resulting.  Brennan won best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal as Judge Roy Bean.  This is one of the great characters and characterizations in all Hollywood cinema, Brennan’s best work. He has created a human being, who actually seems to exist independent of the cinematic machinery. His work is that thorough: funny, tragic, full of detail and just simply HIM. Gary Cooper is also wonderfully cast as a drifter accidentally arrested on a charge of horse stealing, who is dragged into hanging judge Bean’s saloon/courtroom. He talks his way out of his pickle by claiming to know actress Lillie Langtry (Bean’s obsession) personally. Along the way he sort of gets to be Bean’s friend, gradually trying to get him to be less favoritistic toward the cattlemen in their war with farmers. In the end, though, Bean, a stubborn, one-track-mind type of character, orchestrates a bloody violent war against the farmers, burning down all their crops and houses and killing people. The farm girl Cooper loves associates him with Bean, so he has to take action. He rides to the city where Bean is going to see Langtry perform (he has bought up every ticket), and catches him there. A shootout in the theater. Bean’s last vision is of Langtry. Cooper goes back, marries the girl, and they start again.

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Gold Rush Maisie (1940)

The third in Ann Sothern’s series. Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a show date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks,  then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.

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Rockin’ Thru the Rockies (1940)

The Three Stooges plays frontier guides who are leading an all female performing troupe named Nell’s Belles through the Rockies to their date in San Francisco. They are menaced by Indians, but they have also lost their horses so they are forced to spend the night in a cabin and are snowed in, where they nearly starve because a bear has run off with their food. Sound bleak? Well there is a section of the film where Curly annoys Moe by barking like a dog in his sleep.

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Go West, Young Lady (1941)

Penny Singleton of Blondie fame is a gal from back East named “Bill” who shoots as well as any man. Ann Miller is Lola, the jealous dance hall girl. Glenn Ford is the new sheriff, caught between these two hellcats, and having to clean up the town besides.

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Ride ’em Cowboy (1942)

Abbott and Costello are a couple of vendors at a Long Island rodeo and accidentally hide out in a train car…bound for the far west! En route, Costello accidentally shoots an arrow into a teepee, which the local Indians interpret as a proposal of marriage…to (surprise) a homely squaw. Couldn’t see that coming! It’s practically it’s own subgenre. Ugly guy pursued by ugly lady — and we only notice how ugly the lady is! At any rate these antics must vie with an exceedingly boring main plot concerning Dick Foran as a lying writer of western novels, and his boring efforts to land a boring cowgirl (Anne Gwynne). This kind of crap mars every single one of Abbott and Costello’s movies, but it’s like pulling teeth to get any classic comedy fan to admit their movies all suck. On the bright side, this movie does feature Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket, A Tasket”, and that’s the sort of thing that make a movie worth watching for about five minutes.

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Cactus Makes Perfect (1942)

The Three Stooges acquire a map to a lost gold mine out west. On the way they have a run in with prospectors (Vernon Dent and Ernie Adams) with whom they eventually have a battle with lit sticks of dynamite. The Stooges are presumably brothers in this film; their mother is played by (male) character actor Monte Collins. 

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Phony Express (1943)

Sheriff Snub Pollard needs help ridding the town of Peaceful Gulch of its criminals. He brings in the Three Stooges. The bank gets robbed from right under their noses (right behind their backs actually) by the town’s main culprit (Bud Jamison). But they eventually recover the loot.

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Belle of the Yukon (1944)

I hope it won’t be considered inflammatory if I call this movie an amazing, gorgeous exercise in gay kitsch. It’s sort of more a musical comedy than a western. It’s set at a saloon in Alaska during the gold rush.  Charles Winninger owns the saloon, Dinah Shore is his charmless daughter who sings some boring songs. Randolph Scott is Honest John a gambler and con man. Gypsy Rose Lee, his dance hall girl girlfriend tries to reform him. The market for this film was definitely not men, at least not conventional ones. It even has a fashion show sequence. But the costume and set design is so over the top the film has to be watched, if just for that alone.

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Girl Rush (1944)

Singularly weak comedy team Alan Carney and Wally Brown give their take on the comedy western. They are a couple of vaudeville performers in a San Francisco saloon. Frances Langford as a dance hall girl. There is a gold strike . They lose all their customers, so they head to the strike to try to make their own claim. They stop at a hotel and learn that the place is all men. One of them is a very young Robert Mitchum in one of his first film roles – he is the straight lead. The boys are dispatched to bring back all the dance hall girls as brides. Among the many problems is that the there is a faction of bad guys in the town who want to see it fail so the town will be all lawless. They solve the problem in one big final set piece….a bunch of men come back to town in drag. A bit goes on for awhile, and then the jig is up and then they brawl. The movie has all the obligatory comedy western bits: a hanging bit. a bear bit. a skunk bit. And SEVERAL gay bits. The end is a recap of the beginning, They do another number. Another strike, the house empties out again.

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Along Came Jones (1945)

A terrific movie, written by Nunnally Johnson. Very similar in tone to screwball comedy. Gary Cooper is a dumb cowpoke; William Demarest his wisecracking buddy. They ride into a town and are mistaken for a ruthless robber (Dan Duryea) and his crazy uncle. A series of misunderstandings reinforce this impression, and it is helped along by Loretta Young who is Duryea’s girlfriend (although she’s fast losing taste for her nasty man, and is falling for Cooper). Cooper adapts a swagger, very comical. Soon everyone is pursuing the innocent Cooper: a posse, bounty hunters, and Duryea himself. At one point Demarest is shot and we fear a tragic ending, but he pulls through in the end. Cooper musters the courage for a duel with Duryea we know he will lose, but the girl bails him out, shooting Dureya through the forehead. Passionate kiss at the end. Another unjustly forgotten classic!

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Rockin’ in the Rockies (1945)

The Three Stooges are ALMOST the stars of this feature, which seems like an attempt to craft a full-length vehicle for the team more like those enjoyed by the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. Moe “helps” his cousin (Jay Kirby) run a ranch; Larry and Curly are a couple of drifters with gambling winnings. They and some pretty girls (for some reason) make a hash of the cousin’s ranch as they try to prospect for gold and make it to Broadway (just go with it). Meanwhile I guess we’re also supposed to care what happens to the cousin and his ranch.

Photo from Feet of Mud: http://feetofmud.com/filmography/

Photo from Feet of Mud: http://feetofmud.com/filmography/

Pistol Packin’ Nitwits (1945)

Columbia short starring El Brendel, Harry Langdon and Christine McIntyre. Remade as the Three Stooges’ Out West almost immediately thereafter.

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The Three Troubledoers (1946)

The Three Stooges are three drifting cowboys who arrive in the town of Deadman’s Gulch. Curly is elected sheriff when the boys foil one Badlands Blackie from his attempts to coerce the lovely Christine McIntyre into marrying him. She vows she’ll marry Curly if they rid the town of Blackie. The Stooges do — but her father vows he’ll die before he allows her to marry Curly either. They oblige by throwing a lit stick of dynamite at him.

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Out West (1947)

Re-make of Pistol Packin’ Nitwits, starring the Three Stooges. Shemp has now replaced Curly in the team. When a doctor (Vernon Dent) informs him he has an enlarged vein, he decides to go west for his health, bringing Larry and Moe with him. When he arrives at a western town he informs a local crook named “Doc” about his “large vein” and is misinterpreted to mean he possesses a vein of gold. Learning the man is a crook, the team schemes to poison him with a deadly potion. As in all films of this type, the guy doesn’t get poisoned, he just wants a glass of water — it’s as though he has eaten a jalapeno. meanwhile Larry gets locked up in the basement, and the team rescues him from the bad guys.

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Bowery Buckaroos (1947)

A Bowery Boys comedy. The fact that Sach (Huntz Hall) is reading a western comic at the top of the film should be the tip-off that all that follows will be a dream — but me, I can be a little slow on the up-take. While the guys are sitting around the soda shop Louie (Bernard Gorcey) sings a western song called “Louie the Lout” and the suddenly a sheriff rides in on a horse and says that Louie is wanted for a murder committed 20 years ago. The guys decide to head west to clear his name. It’s a good thing this was made by Monogram Pictures – they’re all set up to turn this into a Monogram western! The plot all has to with a gold map etc. They draw the map (which is on Louie’s back) onto Sach’s back. This is the last of the Bowery Boys films to feature Bobby Jordan who got tired of having only a half a dozen lines per movie.

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The Paleface (1948)

Bob Hope classic directed by Norman McLeod. Hope’s cowardly, lecherous character was never in finer form than in this film; when I last saw it a few years ago I don’t think I ever once stopped laughing during the entire movie. The film has Jane Russell as Calamity Jane, working undercover for the federal government to catch a gang of gunrunners to the Indians. She hooks up with cowardly frontier dentist Hope and masquerades as his wife, building up a reputation for him as a tough, unbeatable fighter. As in the best Hope vehicles, he rises to the occasion in the end—with the predictable climax with the two of them tied to burning stakes.

The Native Americans, sadly, are little more than plot points however, the usual obstacles to be overcome…though on the plus side there are a couple of real Native Americans in the cast, Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody (okay so Cody was fake, but the producers THOUGHT he was real!): 

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The Dude Goes West (1948)

An innocuous family comedy. Not too funny and it doesn’t have much of a plot. Seems like an attempt to craft the same kind of vehicle for Eddie Albert, that Hollywood frequently made with Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Red Skelton. But Albert’s not as funny as those guys. He plays a gunsmith from Brooklyn who goes west to make his fortune. He falls for a girl and proves to be a terrific marksman. He helps her protect a deed to a mine. Indians are encountered.

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 Two Guys from Texas (1948)

One of many sequels to Two Guys from Milwaukee starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, very much in the vein of Hope and Crosby pictures. In this one, the boys’ car breaks down in the desert, causing them to work at a local dude ranch. When their car is stolen as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, they must clear their names. The picture also features Dorothy Malone, Forest Tucker and Fred Clark.

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The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

We give this one honorable mention. It’s a serious John Wayne western, but it co-stars Oliver Hardy!  Hardy is predictably terrific as the sidekick, a job he took reluctantly while Stan Laurel was laid up with an injury. (There was actually a kind tradition of casting former silent comedians as western sidekicks in the studio era: Al St. John and Slim Summerville among them) It’s plain from his performance that Hardy was always above all what he considered himself — an actor (as opposed to a clown). And there’s a difference. Groucho Marx, for example, was a terrible actor. Hardy is so great, it’s a pity he didn’t do much more stuff like this. To make it doubly interesting, Wayne is the dominant partner here. Hardy is the Sancho Panza part, the fool, the Laurel. It’s surreal, and most rewarding, to see Hardy out of his usual context. And the other plus is that it had been a decade since Hardy’s last good movie, and five years since his last picture with Laurel…just one last gasp (not including the egregious Utopia). And does he fall off his horse? What do you think? Everyone ought to see this. Read more about it here.

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The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949)

Hilarious and criminally underrated Preston Sturges comedy western, shot in color.  It stars Betty Grable, in the best performance I’ve seen her give. In the film she seems as good as Betty Hutton, whom the part really seems written for (she’d earlier starred in Sturges’s masterpiece The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The Beautiful Blonde essentially has the plot of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, with a gender switch. A dance hall girl (Grable) gets into trouble (she keeps shooting the same judge in the butt) so she as to flee. She and her friend (Olga San Juan) arrive at a distant town and assumes the role of a schoolteacher. Much hilarity! Especially with two retarded schoolboys, one of whom is Sterling Holloway. Her love interest is bad boy Cesar Romero. She is eventually returned to her town, but up to her old trouble again. Much smarter and satirical than your average comedy western (Sturges’s stereotype defying treatment of San Juan is just one example). And it’s a great showcase for his comedy chops, being as it is a parody. Sturges’s work after the mid 40s is almost always written off. This movie proves the injustice of that assessment.

For part three of this series go here. 

For more on comedy film history please check out my 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

See Jenny Lind Tonight!

Posted in PLUGS, Singers, Women with tags , , , on June 30, 2015 by travsd

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Wheeler and Woolsey in “Cockeyed Cavaliers”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2015 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934), directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

And, say! With those eyeglass frames and that hair doesn’t Bob Woolsey look like Match Game panelist Brett Sommers?

Close Enough!

Close Enough!

To learn out more about show business history consult 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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And don’t miss 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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Today on TCM: The Gildersleeve Comedies

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2015 by travsd

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This afternoon on Turner Classic Movies, the Gildersleeve comedies.

Radio comedian Harold “Hal” Peary (1908-1985) created his popular radio character Throckmorton Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly Show in 1939. The big blowhard was so popular he got his own spin-off radio show from 1941 to 1957 and starred as Gildersleeve in several movies. You know Peary’s work whether you know his name or not — after the various incarnations of Gildersleeve went off the air he was a constant presence as a character actor on tv sit coms and a voice over actor for cartoons for decades.

Here’s today’s line up (show times are Eastern Standard):

3:00pm: The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

4:15pm: Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

5:30pm: Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

6:45pm: Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

To learn out more about show business history consult 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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And don’t miss 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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A History of the Comedy Western #1: Silents

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , on June 29, 2015 by travsd

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The roots of the comedy western genre are surprisingly early.  Casual movie fans are apt to think the genesis might lay with Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937) or, God forbid, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). But actually it can be traced all the way back to the birth of narrative film. There have been dozens of them over the past century. Indeed, what I initially envisioned as a single blogpost has turned into a five part series.

Thank Broncho Billy Anderson, America’s first cowboy star, whose career dated from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. In 1907, Anderson co-founded Essanay Studios and in 1911 they launched the popular “Snakeville” series, the star of which was Augustus Carney, portraying one “Alkali Ike.” Snakeville was a fictional rural town in the American southwest, and in 1911, despite the presence of the occasional car or telephone, that was still a milieu that we today think of as a western. By 1912 Alkali Ike was such a hit with audiences that Carney went over to Universal Studios for twice the salary, becoming Universal Ike.

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Algie the Miner (1912)

A Billy Quirk comedy for Solax studios. Quirk plays a “nance” who wants to marry a girl, but her father is scornful. He writes out a paper that says “if this boy becomes a man in one year he can marry my daughter”. Algie agrees. He goes west to become a miner, dressed in hilarious western gear. The idea of this overtly swishy boy going west conjures  Oscar Wilde — it can’t be a coincidence that he’s named Algie. The western guys laugh at him at first. They give him a bigger gun, he faints. Gradually he changes. He gets new clothes, he drinks, works in the mines, and gets tough. Then he and his friend come back east m(you have to use your imagination. The “western” exteriors are clearly New Jersey. He is now so rough and ready that everyone is terrified. The father is forced to let him marry the girl. Variations on this plot of course were later used by Fairbanks, Keaton and Lloyd (see below).

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The Tourists (1912).

This was one of Mack Sennett’s last comedies for Biograph before starting his own landmark studio, Keystone. In the film, a small group of travelers de-trains at a desert stop in order to visit a local southwest Indian reservation. The entire plot consists of Mabel Normand flirting with the “Big Chief” to such an extent that by the film’s end, “Mrs. Big Chief” and all the other Navaho women chase her and her company back to the train with tomahawks! It seems that even other women don’t like a woman with a big personality. The Tourists was improvised at an actual reservation, using actual local Native Americans as extras.

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Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

The title virtually says it all if you really use your noggin. The formula is essentially “Fatty Arbuckle meets Indian Squaw” (the latter’s name being a play on Longfellow’s Minnehaha). How does it come about? Arbuckle stows away on a cross country train, is discovered by the conductor, and is then thrown off in the middle of the desert. He is about to die…until he is rescued by Minnie, who was played by an actual Cheyenne from Canada whose real name was Minnie Devereaux, although she was generally billed as Minnie Ha Ha, Minnie Prevost or Indian Minnie. Minnie appeared in several other movies over the next decade, most notably Mabel Normand’s 1918 Mickey. The comic idea underlying the premise of this film is not unlike the appearances of Babe London in comedies. The plot is that Minnie wants Fatty to be her man, the comedy arising from her unsuitability or undesirability as a mate, which is taken for granted. Little is made of the reverse (the undesirability of Arbuckle), which surely must be be equally true.

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A Movie Star (1916).

Mack Swain (often billed as “Ambrose”) was a very funny, capable comedian, but this movie is really a split reel idea (five minutes) as opposed to the two reeler it is stretched into. Swain plays an unlikely movie star, who goes to a cinema and rakes in all the attention from the ladies in the room. It is the film-within-the-film everyone is watching that’s a western and rates this short’s inclusion here. When the western is over, Mack is flirting with women, and then his battle-axe wife (Phyllis Allen) shows up with kids and leads him away by the ear.

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Before he became an out-and-out “swashbuckler” Douglas Fairbanks was best known as the star of light rom-coms and action-comedies, although they didn’t have those words then, with plots that generally cast him as rich young men who are required to summon physical heroism to save the day and win the girl. Several of these have a western slant.  In Manhattan Madness (1916), he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home). He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In  The Half Breed (1916) he plays the titular character, who lives in a tree in the forest. The crux of the film is whether to marry the “bad girl” from the faro parlo, or the “nice girl” he has rescued from a group of drunken Indians.  In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Wooly (1917), Fairbanks plays the son of a railroad tycoon who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an Old West charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.

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Harold Lloyd  made several comedy shorts that show the influence of Fairbanks, including several comedy westerns. In Two Gun Gussie (1918), Harold is a piano player in a saloon who is mistaken for a wanted desperado. Bebe Daniels plays a Salvation Army missionary he must rescue from the actual bad guys. In Billy Blazes, Esq (1919), a bunch of bad guys shoot up a town and chase sheriff Snub Pollard away. The villain (Noah Young) tries to evict a girl (Bebe Daniels) and her father (and possess the girl). Billy Blazes (Lloyd) is the hero, the sort of man who is so perfect he can make a cigarette with one hand, and bounce a match off the ground to light it. Billy saves the day, marries Bebe and they raise a family. An Eastern Westerner(1920) is one of the more overtly Fairbanks-esque of Lloyd’s comedies. He plays a wild, partying rich boy whose father sends him out to work on his uncle’s ranch for a little lesson in character-building. The film turns into a comedy western, with Harold the big time “dude”. Everyone he encounters is a matter of fact bully. A villain (Noah Young) tries to force an innocent girl (Mildred Davis). And there is a gang of Ku Klux Klan-like masked vigilantes. Harold takes them all on singlehandedly, outfoxes them, and gets the girl.

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Out West (1918)

We meet Buster Keaton  in a saloon, wearing a black top hat. A guy cheats him at cards. Buster shoots him and drops the corpse through a special trap door. Meanwhile Fatty Arbuckle is riding the rails – in the tank car of the train, chest high in water. He crawls to the top and out, and men at the caboose shoot his butt pursue him along the top of the train. He disconnects the caboose. The train comes back and picks it up. He jumps off. Now he is stranded in the desert desert. He drinks the entire contents of a (real) watering hole. Indians come, shoot his butt with arrows. Back in town, Al St. John and his gang holds up the saloon. Arbuckle tumbles in and knocks them over, then chases them off. He now becomes the bartender. St John comes back in without his robber disguise and causes more trouble. Fatty hits him on head repeatedly with bottle — doesn’t work. Shooting also doesn’t work. Then they tickle him and throw him out. Bandits revenge. They kidnap girl (Alice Lake) and flee to a house at edge of cliff. The heroes free her and then throw the house over the cliff with St. John still in it!. The film was written by Natalie Talmadge, who would later become Buster Keaton’s wife.

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 The Round Up (1920)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the first of the slapstick comedians to make it up from the rough and tumble world of comedy shorts to the headier world of features.  The Round Up, a comedy western, was a very well thought out “next step” vehicle for Arbuckle. He plays a baby faced sheriff named Slim who is frequently ridiculed for his size. The idea of an overweight sheriff is natural fodder for comedy, but it also becomes an opportunity for pathos, and the film makes some attempt to touch the heart strings. “Nobody Loves a Fat Man” bemoans our lonely hero. Poor Roscoe has it bad for a girl named Echo (Mabel Julienne Scott) but alas she loves another. And Wallace Beery is the evil “half-breed” villain. So while Arbuckle splits his pants and falls down and breaks things a lot, he gets to be the hero and save the day.

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The Fall Guy (1921)

A Larry Semon short — one of my favorites. of his.  Oliver Hardy plays a robber who holds up a bunch of people, then takes off in his car, a little roadster. He is followed by sheriff Frank “Fatty” Alexander. They get to a farm, and Alexander’s car starts to buck like a bronco, throws him. Hardy meanwhile changes into a  disguise, becomes “Gentleman Joe” in a top hat and tails. Elsehwere we meet Larry and a guy riding in car, drawn by a mule. We come to the obligatory mule-kicking…the guy flies all the way through the air and hits a cliff face. After much trouble, they get their car going and drive it right into the middle of a saloon. Hardy is going to shoot him, then hang him. Semon agrees to shoot himself. He has all sorts of problems achieving it. Then a dance hall girl rescues him. They flee. Hardy pursues.  Next, a segment where a malevolent car gets cartoon eyes (headlights) and mouth (grill) and chases Semon, just like Herbie the Love Bug. Semon escapes. Next, a guy in the bar hands out reward posters for Hardy, identifying him as the robber. Hardy happens at that moment to be robbing the bar. Everyone runs over to catch him but he escapes. Semon traps Hardy and the car in a shed. Hardy simply drives, dragging the shed along with him. Larry pursues on foot, climbing atop. The posse follows behind. The shed with a car inside approaches the edge of a cliff. Semon lassos a telephone pole and swings off in nick of time. Hardy, the car and the shack all sail off the cliff and crash at the bottom. Semon goes to embrace his girl and falls in the obligatory 8 foot deep mud puddle.

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Whirl o’ the West (1921) 

A Snub Pollard short for Hal Roach. Snub plays a big city dude who comes to a western town. He is without his trademark walrus mustache in this film mustache — he is actually kind of handsome! He befriends a girl (Marie Mosquini) and a little African American boy (Sunshine Sammy). Then the whole town tries to lynch Snub. The friends make their escape on a stage coach. Not much of a movie!

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The Paleface (1922) 

In this western parody Buster Keaton  plays an innocent butterfly collector who accidentally walks onto an Indian reservation whose inmates have vowed to “kill the next white man [they] see”. The natives are treated sympathetically (they are being swindled by unscrupulous agents, a common western theme) though they are a bit on the “how, ugh” side and want nothing more than to burn Buster to a crisp at the stake. Although he hilariously bests them at one point by pulling up the stake he is tied to and bonking his captors on the head with it while he is still trussed up. In the end Buster saves the day and as his reward picks out a pretty “Indian squab” of his own, kissing her passionately on the lips…for two years! This is racially progressive stuff for 1922, so bravo, Buster.

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The Pilgrim (1923)

Charlie Chaplin’s  The Pilgrim is essentially a remake of his earlier pictures Police and The Adventurer, fleshed out with an exotic locale (south Texas) and a high concept premise: escaped criminal Charlie masquerades as a clergyman in a small western town in order to evade the law. When his old cellmate shows up and robs the old lady he boards with, Charlie heroically retrieves the money. Still, the law insists on punishment. The sheriff offers him a choice: back to jail, or freedom in Mexico – which appears to be a hotbed of rampant violence. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Charlie ends the film by making his usual exit down the trail, this time with one foot in each country.  In later years, Chaplin went back and wrote a score for this film, including an adorable cowboy theme song, which I think of as an indispensable part of the experience.

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Yukon Jake (1924)

A hilarious Ben Turpin comedy, drected by Del Lord, later responsible for many a Three Stooges short, this movie goes right for the funny bone, making full use of the comedy potential of Turpin’s famous cock-eye, western genre conventions, fur hats, snow, and bears. Commentators usually write about Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) as though it had happened in a vacuum, his inspiration coming primarily from stereopticon slides he saw of Alaskan prospectors. But I frankly find it difficult to believe that Chaplin was unaware of Yukon Jake, or of Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North, made in 1922. Yukon Jake made have also influenced the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer, which repeats the gag of having a tiny sled dog dangling from its traces.

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Go West (1925)

While among Buster Keaton‘s more personal films, aspects of Go West feel more like Chaplin or Lloyd. In this western comedy, he plays a drifter named “Friendless” who takes a job on a ranch, where he must prove himself amongst a bunch of mean and manly guys. His main attachment is to a cow named “Brown Eyes”. Yet certain aspects of the film are strongly Keatonesque. He takes the period detail very seriously. Unlike many comedy westerns, for example, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1938) or the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Keaton makes a real effort to make the location look and feel accurate, which gives the film an entirely different sort of feeling. And the climax, a cattle stampede in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is quite typical of the man who had given us a hundred running policemen in Cops (1922) and dozens of brides in Seven Chances (1925).

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The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin‘s masterpiece, set against the backldrop of the Alaskan gold rush of the late 1890s.  The inspiration for this film came to Chaplin from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass. This was an epic backdrop in which to place the Tramp.  Large scale films about punishing life in the wilderness were in vogue at the time.  Recent years had seen the success of Robert Flaherty’s Arctic documentary Nanook of the North (1922), major westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which has its climax in California’s Death Valley, perhaps the least hospitable spot for life on the globe.  As a parlor socialist, Chaplin surely also knew the works of Jack London, who’d actually taken part in the Alaskan gold rush and written about it in works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story “To Build a Fire”. 1923 had also seen the first of many remakes of The Spoilers, an Alaskan gold rush yarn based on the 1906 novel by Rex Beach. And even some comedians had dabbled in the genre, namely, Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Ben Turpin’s Yukon Jake (1924). But only Chaplin could make starvation, cold and loneliness as funny as this. Read much more about it here. 

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Should Tall Men Marry? (1928)

The film is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it was directed by Louis Gasnier, who started out directing Max Linder comedies in Paris, directed the famous Perils of Pauline serials…and, as if this isn’t already a crazy enough combination of things, the B movie cult classic Reefer Madness. Also, this is Stan Laurel’s last solo film, i.e. the last film he ever made without Oliver Hardy as his partner. This too is interesting. Prior to their teaming, Laurel had the more flourishing solo career than Hardy. AFTER their teaming, Hardy was the only partner who did the occasional outside project, such as Zenobia (1938) and The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). The thinking was that, unlike Hardy, Laurel was wedded to a character that couldn’t function outside the partnership. Personally, I think that’s crap. We get a glimpse of Laurel’s range in A Chump at Oxford. He could have played anything. He (and more likely the producers) were just chicken.

Should Tall Men Marry? is a western parody. Laurel plays an apparently retarded cowhand (at one point he kisses a calf) who competes with other cowpokes for the hand of a country damsel named Martha. Her father is played by Jimmy Finlayson, who gets an extended comic sequence with a mule. At the climax, the villain and his gang kidnap the the girl and Fin and Stan come to the rescue, after much back and forth, mostly by clubbing  the bad guys on the head with boards. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you!

For part two of this series go here. 

For more on comedy film history please check out my 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Century of Slapstick #85: Fatty’s Plucky Pup

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedians, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on June 28, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Roscoe Arbuckle comedy Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915). This was one in a series of comedies in which Arbuckle co-starred with canine star Luke the Dog. Another was Fatty’s Faithful Fido.

As he often does, in this film Roscoe plays a good-for-nothing layabout who lives with his mother (Phyllis Allen). He smokes in bed and starts a fire. Then he gives a dog a bath in a washtub, ruining the laundry. He is also fond of flirting with Lizzie the girl next door (Josephine Stevens). Later he brings Lizzie to an amusement part, where she will be kidnapped by a gang of shell game operators led by Edgar Kennedy. Luke the Dog alerts Fatty to the situation and the two of them (joined by the Keystone Kops) come to her rescue. The film contains a memorable shot of Mack Sennett’s famous treadmill-scrolling backdrop combo that gave a very cartoonish impression of the subject running (or riding a bike as the case may be) with the background going by behind them.

Here is a truncated version with an original jazz score by Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy: 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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