Archive for August, 2015

Charlie Chaplin in “His New Profession”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy short His New Profession (1914).

This film is quite distinct from His New Job, Chaplin’s first film for Essanay a few months later. In this, Charlie is busy minding his own business in the park when a young Charley Chase (then still billed as Charles Parrott), runs up and hires to be a home health aid to his invalid uncle (Jess Dandy) so that he can go cavorting around with his girlfriend (Peggy Page). The job consists mostly of pushing the old crank around in his wheelchair, presaging some of the comic fun he will later have with Eric Campbell in The Cure. 


Naturally, they wind up on a pier. There they encounter a blind man. When both the unfortunates are napping, Charlie steals the coins out of the blind man’s tin cup, so that he can go drinking at the bar, surely one of his lowest onscreen acts. Eventually of course the story winds up with all of them on the pier, and lots of harrowing fisticuffs.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy 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 find out more 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.


Groucho Marx on Vaudeville

Posted in Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd


Friend Noah Diamond just returned from a Marx Brothers fact finding mission at the Smithsonian, and brought back this 1925 quote from Groucho neither of us knows what to do with, but is to good to waste, so we stick it here, all on it’s own like a sore thumb. Noah’s got more to report. Look for that here or somewhere in a few days. Now Groucho:

“There is only one school for entertainers in the world, and that is vaudeville. The legitimate actor and the musical comedy actor never learn the secret of entertaining an audience like the vaudeville actor does. The reason is that the reaction of an audience in vaudeville is instant. They tell you as soon as you speak a line in vaudeville just how good you are or how bad you are, and if you are really good that is the only way you will ever come to know it, too, for the agent and the booking office will keep it a dark secret from you in all their conversation. They not only tell you instantly, but they keep on telling you all through your act, in a kind of free and unrestrained way that teaches you something about the reactions of an audience. That is what the legitimate actor misses. Sometimes he misses it so badly that he even thinks he is good when he is rotten and he never really knows how he stands. There is a lot of hokum about audiences in Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and in legitimate theatres, but in vaudeville everything is on the dead level and you cannot get away with fake stuff a minute. I suppose that is the reason why all the comedians in musical shows these days, and most of the other principals, come from vaudeville.”

Which is why we need it back — badly!

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


One Last, Lost Beatles Album

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd


This is a little mental fantasy project I’ve been working on since I was a teenager, which no self respecting Beatles nerd should be a stranger to: a speculation about what a NEXT Beatles album would have/ could have been like. The proceeding has nothing to do with reality or logic. In the end, it is a soup I’ve decided could be made with some ingredients left in the cupboard. Some of it involves cleaning up and improving existing tracks with technology and adding more production elements; others envision entirely new recordings. All of them are songs that originated in the years 1968-1970 when they were still a group. Note: it’s not envisioned as a cohesive concept album, but something more like the late Hey Jude album….a collection of oddments.


Across the Universe: Granted, this one has been released on many different albums in several different versions — but John was not satisfied with any of them, and I agree. There is something missing from every version that’s been released. In one interview, Lennon said with palpable bitterness that McCartney should have offered more help with it (which is quite an admission) and indeed McCartney does seem to have blown this one off. And likewise George Martin seems to have done little on its behalf as well. It’s a potentially gorgeous song. It seems like Lennon felt it should have a minimum of orchestral assistance, so it has very little (except in the slapped-on Phil Spector version), but in the end, it needs something. More exotic instrumentation? Existing versions have things like light sitar and harp — maybe something besides a guitar as the primary instrument?

Child of Nature: This one is so beautiful and would sit so well on an album alongside “Across the Universe” – -it was obviously written during the same burst of inspiration during the 1968 Indian sojourn. The tune was so good that Lennon later revived it for “Jealous Guy” on the Imagine album, but I vastly prefer this version. My instinct is that the unrestrained gushing and hippie like exultation in the lyrics later embarrassed Lennon’s more cynical side.

What’s the New Mary JaneThis hilarious experimental weirdie was finally released in its somewhat unfinished state on Anthology. I feel like it could use George Martin’s touch: some tightening up and the addition of things like strings and horns and woodwinds would bring it closer to such more palatable released psychedelic fare as “I Am the Walrus” and “It’s All Too Much“.

Give Me Some Truth: Lennon eventually finished this tune and put it on the Imagine album. But he started it during the Get Back sessions. The finished version is a typically terrific Lennon word blizzard of left wing paranoia. You can hear him thrash it out in early stages with the other Beatles here:

Watching Rainbows: This one also dates from the Get Back sessions, and eventually made it onto Let it Be, in altered, truncated form as part of the song “I’ve Got a Feeling”. The original version of the song stands up though. It’s basically a great two chord sixties jam reminiscent of Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo”:


Come and Get It: Well, obviously. McCartney briefly intended it for Abbey Road, but quickly reassigned it for Badfinger to perform for the Magic Christian soundtrack. I include it with reservations — it’s so lightweight — but it actually seems much in sync thematically with other stuff of his on Abbey Road, especially “You Never Give Me Your Money”

Another Day: This, which became McCartney’s first solo single, was famously dismissed by Lennon: “It’s just another song“, but I’ve always contended that the main problem with the solo track is lackluster production. Thematically it evokes past successes like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”. It begs for the George Martin treatment. ALSO! ye Gods – – I have heard an early working version he recorded during the Get Back sessions. His original approach on piano, as opposed to guitar, is WAY better! It gives the song a gravitas the eventual version lacks, and reminds me a little of his middle-8 for “A Day in the Life”.

Teddy Boy: Yeah, this one has always been a tough pill to swallow, with it’s child’s point of view, singsong melody, and references to “mommy”. The version on McCartney is underproduced. The original “Get Back” version which was released on Anthology is marred by the other Beatles overtly making fun of it, and dragging their heels in every way possible. But two really great things about the Anthology version tantalize. One is Harrison’s playful lead guitar, very evocative of Abbey Road. And the other is McCartney whistling the melody towards the end. To be completely salvaged it still needs more — perhaps Lennon attacking the lyrics and beating them into respectability with some darkness, or adding a new middle 8.

Junk: This one (also released on McCartney) needs just a very little to put it over. Something similar to the horns at the end of “Mother Nature’s Son” would fill it out a little.

Suicide: One of the best parts of the McCartney album is about 2 or 3 seconds long. It’s a snatch of a song McCartney wrote when he was a teenager at around the same time he wrote “When I’m 64”. Like the latter song, it’s McCartney revealing his genius for putting on a pre-rock style and besting previous generations at their own game. Because it’s so far from the Beatles style I guess it was never considered for one of their albums, but from the perspective of 2015 it seems no more out of place than all the other crazy genres they fooled around with on the White Album, e.g. “Good Night”. The word is that McCartney was trying to sell the song to Sinatra – -who, frankly, was an idiot for not recording this great song by the hottest composer of his era. It would have been interesting on a Beatles album, to say the least:

Back to the Commonwealth: I’ve loved this one since I was a teenager — it seems like the very essence of what they were trying to do on Get Back….it’s in the vein of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, and apparently eventually evolved into the song “Get Back”, which is quite a journey. The lyrics sound almost finished in the recording, and McCartney’s Elvis impression is very funny. With its political commentary, this song would have lived quite harmoniously side by side with Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth”.

Back Seat of My Car: This is a case where the existing, released solo version (on Ram) is an acknowledged pop masterpiece. But McCartney did introduce the tune during the Get Back sessions, and frankly it’s a better song than any of the ones that finally made the cut on Let it Be. It is at least intriguing to speculate what the other Beatles would have brought to it.


Not Guilty: Ironically the Beatles recorded over 100 takes of this song for the White Album, and it was slated for inclusion, but cut at the last moment. George released a solo version in 1978, and the original track was eventually released on Anthology. Harrison and McCartney are in top form musically on the track — I listen to it all the time. The lyrics are dreadful of course, but the words to dozens of released Harrison songs are dreadful, so that’s not a deal breaker. Despite all the work they put into it, I do feel like it still needs just a little something, a little George Martin touch, to put it completely over. Strings?

Sour Milk Sea: Some dope made a hilarious remark in the comments section under one of the Youtube clips of the Beatles demo of this song: “I like the Jackie Lomax version”. All real Beatle fans will know why that is a hilarious comment. Yes, this was released as a single performed by the singer Jackie Lomax. But Jackie Lomax was just a guy picked by Harrison as a stand-in for himself, much as McCartney had picked Badfinger to perform “Come and Get It”. They were trying to cultivate artists for their new record label Apple. But not only did Harrison write and produce the song, but the musicians on the track are Harrison, McCartney, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton! It comes SO close to being a Beatle record. So you see, there is no “Jackie Lomax version”. It is George Harrison’s version, with Lomax as one of his instruments. Anyway, I really love the Lomax single anyway (and listen to it all the time). BUT, I much prefer the way Harrison sings the song on his demos — there is an eerie, bending lilt to his voice. And Lennon (who doesn’t play on the Lomax one) brings an old fashion Chuck Berry kind of energy to it.

All Things Must Pass: There’s a reason this became the title track of Harrison’s first solo album: it’s an awesome song. (If you think about it, it has a lot in common with McCartney’s song “Let it Be”, which may be one reason why the Beatles didn’t see this song, which was introduced during the “Get Back” sessions, all the way through to the end.) BUT! The Beatles came tantalizingly close to getting their own version up and running, and the part I love best about it is their harmony singing on the chorus, done is a sort of old-timey gospel arrangement reminiscent of The Band. Also Billy Preston’s piano playing adds a lot:

Circles: Like many Harrison songs, this one is so delicate and ephemeral that it scarcely makes an impression the first time around. But after a couple of plays it can begin to haunt. Its metaphysical themes make a great match with a lot of the other songs on this theoretical album. He eventually released a fully produced version on his terrible album Gone Troppo.  His 1968 demo exists; the voices of Lennon and McCartney would have added a lot.


It Don’t Come Easy: There’s got to be a Ringo song! And this one was recorded in February 1970, when the group was technically still together, and was produced by Harrison, with Harrison and Starr as the core line-up (they also co-wrote it). The released version also included Klaus Voormann, Stephen Stills and Badfinger. Here’s an interesting artifact: a version with Harrison doing a guide vocal for the shakier Ringo to work off of. Listen for the background singers going “Hare Krishna!”, later buried in the mix:

L. Wolfe Gilbert

Posted in Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Tin Pan Alley songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970). Born in Odessa, he moved to the U.S. in his youth and broke into vaudeville in the first decade of the twentieth century as part of a singing quartet. While performing in Coney Island he was spotted by English producer Albert Decourville and brought over to Britain to tour music halls as part of the Ragtime Octet. In 1912, he co-authored (with Lewis Muir) one of my favorite vaudeville era songs “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”. This song was recorded and performed by nearly every singer of the era, and but Gilbert on top. In 1917 he played a week at the Palace with his then-partner Anatole Friedland. Other songs from Gilbert’s catalog include “Down Yonder”, “Ramona”, and “Jeannine, I Dream of Lillac Time”. His later decades were spent working in film, radio and television and he was a director of ASCAP from 1941 through 1944.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Edwin J. Burke

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Edwin J. Burke (1889-1944). We cast a wide net betimes for our Stars of Vaudeville series. Only rarely do playwrights make it here, but some do, and some have.

Burke studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and initially worked as a stage actor and director before trying his hand at writing for vaudeville. Before he was done, he wrote 250 one act plays and sketches for the vaudeville stage, some of them making it as far as the Palace. His first full length play This Thing Called Love was such a success that in 1928 he began to work in Hollywood. He is best known today for having written several Shirley Temple films, and for his Oscar winning screenplay for Bad Girl (1931).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Two Must-Sees at the Met

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Melodrama and Master Thespians, VISUAL ART on August 28, 2015 by travsd

“Jolly Flatboatmen in Port”, George Caleb Bingham, 1857

A quick shout-out for two exhibitions I caught over the weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both seemingly calculated to appeal to this correspondent.

Having just finished reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, I was particularly primed to appreciate Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River (up through September 20). The image above may be Bingham’s best known painting (at least, it’s the one I already knew. I think it adorned my copy of Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri). At any rate the Twain book enhanced my appreciation of the exhibition like a piece of cheese goes with an apple. Twain of course wrote about his time on the Mississippi piloting steam boats. Though Bingham does show a couple of steamboats, most of his imagery depicts the more idyllic, romantic flatboats which were the primary river-borne freight carriers prior to the steam age (though they continued to play a useful role long after). The typical Bingham genre painting features cheerful flatboatmen in open-collared blouses with billowing sleeves, usually sporting either a broad brimmed hat, a topper, or a wool cap.  There is a clean look to them, with an emphasis on form and technique and beauty (perhaps my point will be better made if I say instead “a lack of ugliness”) which brings ihis work within a gnat’s-cough of kitsch, though whether it or it isn’t, that’s okay with me. They’re almost always shown with a happy expression, either in an attitude of tranquil and peaceful repose, or dancing and celebrating. No one’s ever grumbling about his crummy job as a day laborer. Alongside the finished paintings are many of the sketches and studies that led up to them, and in most cases I found his pencil and pen work to be better than the finished product (details like facial expressions and folds in clothing are much finer in the sketches). Some added bonuses: a period river panorama is depicted (on video screen), and we get to see some of the daguerreotypes that Bingham made of his work for reference after he sold the paintings off.

Sargent's portrait of Joseph Jefferson

Sargent’s portrait of Joseph Jefferson

Also of interest to readers of this blog, I should think, is the current Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, on view through October 4. I’ve already raved about Madame X here (va va voom!) and she’s on view here, and so are portraits of many painters and writers, but of course I was especially interested in his depictions of showfolk including the theatre’s perennial “Rip Van Winkle” Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Booth, Ellen Terry (as Lady MacBeth), and Ada Rehan. I also loved a three part series he did of the striking and strange Robert Louis Stevenson. 

More details about both shows and everything else at the Met are at .

The Four Marx Bros. in “Animal Crackers”

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , on August 28, 2015 by travsd


The Internet is an amazing thing. When memories fail, it can sometimes help us recover the facts with a clarity that startles. For example, I now know that July 21, 1979 was the first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers movie. That was the day when, several rights issues having been cleared, Animal Crackers was screened on television (CBS) for the first time. I was 13.

I think most people would agree that there can be no greater introduction to the Marx Brothers than Animal Crackers, which was released on this date in 1930. Based on their 1928 Broadway stage hit, with a book by Kaufman and Ryskind and songs by Kalmar and Ruby, the film version was directed by Mack Sennett veteran Victor Heerman who insisted on a highly beneficial pre-production cutting of the script, wrestling it into a shape that not only makes a better movie than The Cocoanuts, but a better Marx Brothers comedy. The technical issues that bogged down The Cocoanuts were much less of a factor here, as well, and while still more stage-bound than their subsequent vehicles, the script is so breath-taking in its insanity, so focused and fast-moving, that only the most obsessive-compulsive of cine-creeps could possibly care.


The plot here is a virtual remake of The Cocoanuts. Instead of the “Potter millions” it’s now Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont); instead of jewels getting stolen, it’s a painting; instead of a starving architect as the juvenile, it’s a starving painter, and instead of Florida, it’s the mansions of Long Island. Zeppo is once again a secretary named Jamison, whom apparently has treacherously just left his former employer Mr. Hammer in the lurch at the Hotel de Cocoanut. While the lines that all the other characters speak are literary embarrassments, Groucho and Chico are like vomiting volcanoes of punning, quipping nonsense-spouting vaudevillia, with Harpo contributing some of his most bizarre, surreal physical business ever (favorite moment: when he shoots at a statue with a gun and it springs to life and shoots back.)


Groucho (in jodphurs and pith helmet) is permanently ensconced in our memories as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the “T” stands for Edgar), the African explorer who arrives at a society weekend party with the sort of fanfare usually accorded only to heads of state, preceded by his secretary Jamison and some musicians (Harpo and Chico) whom, for some reason, are announced at the party as though they themselves are guests. Some of the Marx Brothers most famous jokes are drawn from this film, including the one about the elephant and the pajamas. So too is Groucho’s fourth-wall breaking Strange Interlude parody, and Groucho and Chico’s “left-handed moths” exhange, a virtual reprise of the “viaduct” scene in Cocoanuts.


While Animal Crackers is one of Groucho’s best vehicles (and the rapid-fire Kaufman and Ryskind script, it must be conceded, is a huge contributing factor), the element that pushes it over the edge into magic is the musical presence of songwriters Kalmar and Ruby. You will always find their names attached to the Marx Brothers’ best vehicles. Any producer who didn’t understand that (which seems to have been most of them) ought to have had his head examined. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” of course became Groucho’s theme song, and “Hello, I Must Be Going” ranks with it near the top of the canon. Even the lover’s duet “Why Am I So Romantic?” is peppier and less insipid than these moments usually are in Marx Brothers films.


The film also benefits from one of the Marx Brothers’ best supporting casts, including in addition to Dumont; Lillian Roth, easily the most engaging ingenue in any Marx film; rotund Englishman Robert Grieg as Hives, the Butler; and Louis Sorin as the fraudulent art dealer Roscoe W. Chandler a.k.a “Abie, the Fish Man.”


Animal Crackers set a very high bar for all future Marxdom. Of their all-excellent next three Paramount vehicles, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup would cleave to its formula the closest, casting Groucho as an inexplicable man of of eminence, introduced to us at the top of each film with grandiose and crazy musical fanfare and then proceeding to pummel the hypocrites and lickspittles around him like the tackle dummies they are. That is the whole point of Groucho, and the engine of the Marx Brothers’ best comedy. Later producers would deviate from the Animal Crackers formula strictly at their peril.


For more on 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out 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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