Archive for November, 2015

Some Thoughts on Mark Twain

Posted in AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, ME with tags , , , , on November 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835-1910).

He’s an important writer for me in many ways, as he is for everybody, though I couldn’t call him my very favorite American writer or the one I esteem the most. I would have to give the highest slots to some combination of Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe, and probably in that order, with Whitman and Twain about neck and neck somewhere behind that leading pack — and somewhere in front of most others.

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But unlike the others, Twain has been there nearly my entire life. I wasn’t more than four or five when my father gave me one of my first books, an illustrated copy of Huckleberry Finn (Grossett and Dunlap edition). I don’t think he understood that it wasn’t exactly for very small children, or that it was preceded by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was undoubtedly the second Twain book I came to know, although I may have watched movie versions first. As I wrote in No Applause, the story of Huck Finn is important to me, not just because of the theatrical mountebank characters of the Duke and Dauphin…but I was early on enraptured by that idyllic image of running away, floating from place to place on a raft, and having adventures.

It’s curious I should love these books so much, given that I was just the sort of kid that Twain hated and made fun of all the time. I went around with a halo over my head all the time, I LOVED both school and Sunday-school, and I scorned and detested rebellious, trouble-making kids. That said…all kids play imaginative games and, more importantly, all kids get into trouble. Twain wrote these children so well…gave them credit for being people not poppets…they have feelings and thoughts, and they are generally good (morally) even if they frequently misbehave according to society’s artificial constructs. And in all honesty I did plenty of downright wicked things, I just tried not to openly defy authority, and there’s the difference. Tom and Huck and Jim (and to a lesser extent, Becky) dare to operate outside the law, hang the consequences. And they are good people — about as good as we are, at any rate. So their exploits make for highly attractive fantasy.

Twain’s heart was in this of course — the characters and the setting were based on his own memories of his childhood in Missouri. The broadest blanket statement I would make about Twain is that his writing is best the closer he sticks to himself and first hand observations. Journalism, memoir, commentary, humor, essays, semi-autobiographical fiction and lectures…this is where he excels. The farther he strays from that, the worse he gets. When we get to Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, for example, we have Jumped the Shark. The magic is gone. He has gone too far.

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Believe it or not, I had not read Life on the Mississippi until this year. I’m not sure why I thought it wouldn’t appeal to me (I had read almost all of his major works by this point and still hadn’t gotten to this major one). I suppose I felt that I had read his autobiography (I read an early, three volume, unfinished edition as a teenager) and I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and those gave me so much pleasure — why would I want to read some non-fiction book about a river and riverboats?  Because Mark Twain wrote it, that’s why! I heard I was was related to some people Twain wrote about in the book (I have since learned I am also distantly related to Twain himself!) so I finally picked the book up for purely selfish reasons. I am now inclined to think of it as Twain’s masterpiece. Like many of of my favorite American books (Moby Dick and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are two examples) it defies categorization. Humor, history, science writing, autobiography, travelogue, current events…and his voice so strong throughout. Yeah, I think this may be his best book.

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Other than the books I’ve mentioned, I think his best writing is in his humor pieces and short stories. Interestingly, that writing kind of spans his career. The humor squibs I associate mostly with the beginning of his career in the Far West in the 1860s (his “Jumping Frog” period as it were), when he would contribute to newspapers from San Francisco and Nevada (Roughing It covers that period as well). As for the short stories, some of his masterpieces date from what I call his “Mean Old Man” period, his bitter satires, so sour and dark because he just didn’t give a damn any more. Stories like “”The ₤1,000,000 Note”, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”, fit this description, and pave the way for later literary misanthropes like H.L. Menken and Kurt Vonnegut. One of my all time favorites dates from the early period though. In “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868), a train carrying a group of U.S. Congressmen gets snowed in while crossing the Rocky Mountains and the politicians use parliamentary procedure to determine the order in which they will eat each other. Now that’s what I call comedy!

I am so seldom tempted to quote Jim Morrison, but on this occasion it fits so nicely. When it comes to the writing of Mark Twain, “The West is the Best.” He is a genius when writing about his boyhood and young adulthood in Missouri, or the years that followed in the western mining camps. But like so many writers from the American West, he had an apparent inferiority complex. He seems downright obsequious in his awe for America’s Eastern Establishment, and for that of Europe. Unfortunately, he makes that the subject of his writing A LOT.

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Okay, yeah, this is what I’m NOT looking for from Mark Twain.

Like so many writers, poets and visual artists of the late 19th/early 20th century, Twain was an amateur Medievalist. He seems to have a lot of fun writing in that voice, but he doesn’t know it as well, and it doesn’t quite land. Still, these are some of his more popular works — mostly because they are inspired ideas even if they fail in execution. These works include The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and (even less successfully) Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. If these have the power to make you cringe from time to time (they do me, anyway), I find his West-East culture clashy things the least bearable of all. These would be works like The Gilded Age, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad. The irony of these works is that our Great Satirist and Hater of Hypocrisy is himself guilty of pretension. It doesn’t suit him but he seems to be striving for this badge of legitimacy ALL THE TIME. But it’s mixed. Like Ben Franklin before him (who stormed Paris high society wearing a coonskin cap), Twain gained a lot of attention by crashing the parlors of sophisticates bearing the earmarks of the roughneck — messy mop of hair, omnipresent cigar, and the white suit of a Southern plantation owner. But where does he go to live the instant he becomes established? Hartford, Connecticut. We don’t want sophistication from Mark Twain, we want “Americana” – – but he’s pushing his sophistication at you all the time.

Then again, he had something to prove. WE think he’s a genius, but mostly because he redefined the word. Those writers at the top of this post whom I mentioned that I love: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe…those are all pre-Twain. Their language is rich in allusion, highly wrought, and reflective of the influence of religion and the King James Bible. Before Twain there is Thanatopsis. Twain was an empiricist, not a metaphysician. The discipline of journalism taught him to be direct and immediate and to scrape off all filigree and gratuitous adornment. Twain’s writing embodies certain American principles: truth, clarity, simplicity. His primary acolyte was Hemingway —  the two of them cast a mutual shadow over American writing over the entire 20th century. While I recognize and appreciate Twain’s genius, stylistically I’ve always preferred the writers who’ve gone against that grain, writers like James Agee and Thomas Wolfe. I contend that it is legitimate to at least attempt to peer beyond the veil of reality. Words as ceremony rather than anecdote. I’m somewhat bored with the aesthetics of the 20th century.

Still, Twain is who we all want to be, isn’t it? And I have to acknowledge that I am not above that adolescent aspiration. Like him, I gave myself a nom de plume. Like him, I like to perform my writing, live and in person, wearing a costume. Like him, I want to run away and see the world and write, write, write about it, with a snarl, and a wink, and maybe even give the reader an Indian sunburn.

 

Happy Thanksgiving from Harrison Cady

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Thanksgiving, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on November 26, 2015 by travsd

Some charming Thanksgiving cartoons by my first cousin thrice removed:

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Plotz, Part 2: The Lisa Hammer Interview

Posted in Comedy, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by travsd

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As we blogged here yesterday, a new feature length film of the popular web series The Sisters Plotz premieres tonight at Anthology Film Archives, presented by New York Women in Film and Television. The show and film are a kind of three way collaboration combining the celebrity power of The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb (my middle school crush, I’m not ashamed to say), the deadpan-slapstick direction of underground film-maker/actor/ musician  Lisa Hammer, and the sparkling retro-writing of screenwriter/ songwriter Lisa Ferber. As they roll out the movie, we’ll have interviews with the principals, including some great behind-the-scenes video of the (spoiler alert!) pie fight. Today, we continue with a Q & A with  Lisa Hammer, who directed the film and portrays the character of Ladybug Plotz.

You’ve created an amazing, voluminous body of highly distinctive work, and I am fairly dazzled. And watching a bunch of it helped me hone in on which aspects of the Plotz ouevre come from you, and which from the Ferb. The overlapping parts I notice are a love for the antiquarian and a love of style (not just clothes but other aspects of the mise en scene as well). One area of divergence one could point out might be a greater darkness, almost nihilism in your sensibility which I relate to and also identify with many artists our age. “Grunge-iness” for lack of a better word, deriving a lot of humor and freedom from bringing an irreverent “fuck it” to many aspects of the process. Maybe I’m tipping my hand a little, but them’s the beginnings of how I would grope toward describing your work. So the first question would be something like, can you speak to that — the interaction of your’s and Ferber’s sensibilities? Who contributes what? How are you the same, different etc?

I love your descriptions! I definitely bring a playful “fuck it” my work. I am guessing it’s from my punk/goth teenage years that I haven’t outgrown. Plus growing up on radically absurdist humor like Monty Python, etc had an influence. I also love the aesthetics of bygone eras. My grandfather, Bayard Stockton, had a huge collection of 78″ dixieland records which he would play for me, and just hanging around the Stockton house was like taking a time machine to the past. I grew up being obsessed with the 20’s, 30’s 40’s, even the 60’s- watching tons of silent movies and technicolor musicals. I wanted to live inside the films. While classmates had celebrity crushes on Sean Cassidy, mine were on Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton. When high school came around I added hotties like Dave Vanian to the crush-mix, and, well, here we are.

How’d you guys meet, how did all this come about?
Lisa Ferber and I met through a friend (who has been a great supporter of mine since the 90’s) Shade Rupe. He asked us to act in a film he was directing for the “It Came From Kuchar Film Festival” called Whimsellica’s Grand Inheritance, and we won the audience award. My husband and creative partner Levi Wilson acted in that frantically fun film as well, written by Lisa Ferber. We all hit it off immediately!

Talk about the creative team some, especially the ensemble cast. Like, who’s from the Hammer universe and who’s from the Ferber universe?
I think we brought the Plotz cast in about 50-50 hers and my contacts. All of them are the “cream-of-the-crop” as performers and as people. The crew was mostly from my end since I’m a filmmaker, and these were very bold kids who had emailed me that they were graduating from film school and wanted to help on my next film as interns. They all learned very quickly and rose to great positions in this film, from DP’s to Co-Producers. I’m so proud of them!

What do you like about Other Lisa’s writing?
I love Lisa Ferber’s style and her sense of whimsy. I never know what to expect from her dialog and I’m always pleasantly surprised! There’s a perfect mix of archaic phrases, absurdist humor, expert word-smithery (word?) and modern popular references that I have not seen in anyone else’s writing. I love to contribute story because I’m an idea person and I blurt out ridiculous ideas. Lisa F takes them and makes them come alive and make sense in such a beautiful way.

What’s the experience like of acting in this?
 Acting in this was a dream. I got to bring in my love of science and inventions and also my operatic vocal training and comedy timing. My years of acting classes have also been put to use, happily no money was wasted through years of “trying to make it look like I’m not acting”, by getting fed up with acting rules, throwing it all out the window, then just convincing myself that I’m really that person at that moment. Whew!

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Talk about how Eve fits in. Your sensibility is SO underground, and here you have the ultimate mainstream tv star as one of your cast. Is there clash in approaches? Is the clash a good thing? 
Eve is SO funny, dark and twisted, just like us. She gets it right away. And she’s so pro on set it raises the bar of production to a new level.

Was it always the plan to turn the series into the feature?
No, at first Lisa asked us to perform in the staged reading in NY, then that night it dawned on me that we should film it, for fun. Then after we did that I put it online and we became a Funny or Die top 5 video, leading to some insult posts by confounded jocks, which only encouraged us to escalate. So then I thought it should be a TV series, but then I woke up one day and my heart screamed “feature film!” (I have voices in my heart.)

What are the plans for the film after the premiere?
After the premier we will do the festival circuit and then look for a distributor/sales agent.

What else ya got going on?
My next big project is Maybe Sunshine an original series about a 48 year old woman (played by me) in “Millennial-trust-fund-brat-haven” New York City, trying to restart her rock band. Based on my real life band Radiana and my countless absurd experiences singing in bands since the 1980’s. We are currently inviting people to get involved with our show, which will launch in early 2016. My character faces the funny little obstacles that come at women as they age. There are lots of quirky characters in the show as well, and some great guest stars like comedians and musicians, and music by several cool bands. It’s kind of like Louie meets The Monkees. I will also be collaborating on story with Lisa Ferber for her “Fondue Film” project!
For more information on tonight’s screening, go here.

“The Sisters Plotz” Premieres Tomorrow at Anthology

Posted in Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by travsd

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Nu, I should kvell about Plotz?

Well, I predict that I will. A new feature length film of the popular web series The Sisters Plotz premieres tomorrow at Anthology Film Archives, presented by New York Women in Film and Television. The show and film are a kind of three way collaboration combining the celebrity power of The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb (my middle school crush, I’m not ashamed to say), the deadpan-slapstick direction of underground film-maker/actor/ musician  Lisa Hammer, and the sparkling retro-writing of screenwriter/ songwriter Lisa Ferber. Surrounding this trio are a magical ensemble cast of top notch character actors including Hammer’s hubbie/collaborator Levi Wilson, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson (Boardwalk Empire) and our old buddy Stephen Heskett, whom we’ve had the pleasure of acting with in shows such as Spacemen from Space and The Strange Case of Grippo the Ape Man (Who can forget?) as well as the upcoming The Moose Head Over the Mantel. 

As they roll out the movie, we’ll have interviews with the principals, including some great behind-the-scenes video of the (spoiler alert!) pie fight. Today, we begin with a Q & A with Ferber, who wrote the screenplay and portrays the character of Whimsellica Plotz.

What was the genesis of The Sisters Plotz web series?

When I had the chance to write a short play for a yearly reading series, I knew I wanted to use the word “buttle,” which a friend had just taught me was the verb for what a butler does, and that I wanted to work with Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer. So I figured I’d write something where we all play heiress sisters and we have a butler, and then I’d get to live my dream.

How did you meet your two main cohorts [Eve Plumb and Lisa Hammer]? What was the evolution of getting them on board? 

I met them both within the same few months, in early 2010. The director doing my short film Whimsellica’s Grand Inheritance was casting for the role of Cookie Weinglass and sent me a photo of Lisa Hammer. I thought, “Sure, she’s cute, why not!” The second I saw her in real life, I thought, “Friend.” We spent the day shooting with the other cast members, and I loved how sparkly and sweet and funny she was, and I thought, “She’s a keeper.” I met Eve when I went to an art show she was doing at an Upper West Side gallery. I’m interested in other multidisiciplinary people since I paint, write, and perform, and I wonder what makes other people branch out and not feel limited to one definition. We talked a little and I just found her so earthy and present, so I asked her if she wanted to be in an art show I was doing at the National Arts Club. That happened a few months later, and then she asked if I wanted to hang out, and we had dinner at a local, low-key Italian place. It was such a natural first-friend-hang, and there was just this comfort and trust thing–plus we crack each other up. I really lucked out with those two. In both cases, I told them I was writing this short play and asked them to be in it, and we went from there.

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What was the impetus for a feature (as opposed to the series?) 

I owe this all to Lisa Hammer trusting my voice and my work. After the short play reading, she said, “Let’s film it!” So we divided up what we had and put on the web as a series (we debuted as a Top Five Most-Viewed Video on Funny or Die), but I never wrote specifically for the web. Then she suggested I write a 40-minute segment as a potential TV pilot, which we showed in a few theaters, and then she said, “Let’s make it a feature!”  I mean, who’s going to say no to any of this? I can’t even deal with how magical and unexpected this whole thing has been and continues to be. My gratitude level is bursting these days, and periodically I think, “OK, world, we’re on.”

What were the challenges/ differences of the feature, as opposed to the series?

The only real challenge, although it’s also a joy, was finding more stuff for the characters to do. So I threw in some duplicitous maids who are stealing from the sisters, a councilwoman who wants to end all scientific experiments and turn the Plotz home into a carnival, and some romantic suitors including the wealthy scion of a family that made its fortune in only slightly illegal ways, and there we have a feature.

You’ve got such a strong, clear voice — it carries over across media, whether its your humor stories (fiction), plays, paintings, or films. Where did it come from? Who inspires you? Who influenced you? And did you have any mentor or teachers who influenced you IRL (as opposed to famous people whose work you enjoy?)

Thank you! How kind. I think the best feeling for an artist is to know that their voice is heard and appreciated. I’m sort of the product of 1970s sitcoms, which is what I was raised on,1930s screwball comedies and 1940s film noir, though I also know I had this voice when I had only just started watching the ’30s and ’40s stuff. So maybe all those episodes of The Odd Couple and Barney Miller made me the artist I am today. With 1970s sitcoms, a lot of it is really high-energy, drawing-room theater based on witty exaggerated personalities, which is how I write. I also think if you X-rayed my brain there might be some episodes of Lidsville and Sigmund & the Sea Monsters in there—that whole unfettered madcap nuttiness of the era. And I think the TV special Really Rosie made me feel like I could do anything. I’ve also read a fair amount of 19th century novels, and the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Feydeau.

As for real life influences, absolutely my father. I feel like he didn’t know how hilarious he was but I’m sure he could go one-on-one with S.J. Perelman. He made up this character named Farfel Noodnick, who turned out to be the first subject of an illustrated novel I wrote for my parents when I was 7. He used to sing funny songs with my sister and me on my parents’ bed when we were growing up, and he played Scrabble with me and really encouraged a love and understanding of words. He was also a master of gentle sarcasm and when I would complain about some horrible affront to my 10-year-old sensibilities, he would say, in full Bronx accent, “My heart bleeds for you, kid” or “Things are tough all over.” My father also had a way of making me feel like I was darling, and I think as an artist, it’s so helpful to feel like you have someone in your corner; someone who just wants to hear you sing your song. Humor was a constant theme when I was growing up, and by now I consider it one of my essential nutrients. My mom had the kind of dry, dame sense of humor that I only appreciated when I grew up. She wasn’t playful like my dad, but she could wield it. One of the sage bits of advice she gave me was, “You should always go to a party. If the man is a letch, or the woman is a bore, you can always go get another drink.”

Allen Lewis Rickman on "Boardwalk Empire". I'd watch the film just for HIM!

Allen Lewis Rickman on “Boardwalk Empire”. I’d watch the film just for HIM!

Talk a little about your awesome ensemble. One thing that’s very cool is that there’s a large number of people all enthusiastically on board for this common vision.

We pulled a bunch of glamorous eccentrics from all areas. Most of them are seasoned actors, but then there are people like Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who plays Petula Feather, who isn’t a professional actress but she’s the friend who taught me the word “buttle” and I knew she’d be elegant on film, and my friend Katie Gilbert, who tears it up as the innocent-looking but totally scheming maid Rosie. It’s fun to cast actors who you know have their own magic to bring, where it’s like, “Let’s play together.” A lot of this experience felt like being a little kid, but with a lot more freedom and power. We’re just getting all dressed up and pretending, and it’s so much fun. The stuff I write isn’t about looking deep inside yourself and getting serious with it; it’s about combining your own sparkle with the dialogue and letting your beauty shine and having a ball. And of course, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson, both of whom had recurring roles on Boardwalk Empire and were in the Coen Brothers film A Simple Man, were a tremendous gift to the film. I’d seen Allen on stage some time ago, and I mean, it’s so obvious he could play any lovable curmedgeonly baker, policeman, or butcher in a 1930s film that features a pie fight (which ours does), and that he has a love for the period and the style. So I walked over to him after the first time I saw him perform, handed him my card and said, “Hi, I’m Lisa Ferber, I’m a writer and I’d like to work with you someday.” I kept seeing him in stuff around town, and then Mary Feinsinger, who ended up being our composer but at that time was just a friend and BMI colleague, asked if I’d like to go go see her friend Allen and his wife Yelena in a Yiddish-themed production downtown. So I got to meet Yelena, who is just so marvelously demure and warm, and when it came to shoot Plotz, I thought, “Please, pleeeeaaaaase let them work with me.”  Let’s just say Margaret Dumont would give Yelena’s performance in Plotz a long-distance thumbs-up. When I first met these two, I wasn’t even performing, so to then get to act in a movie with them, well, something I love in life is that you really never know that dreams you weren’t even consciously working on will come true.  I think in the entertainment world, we form little families, so I was happy to have the two of them become Plotzniks.

 What are the plans for the film?

Ultimately, I’d like to take over the world with Plotz. Directly after the debut, we’ll be exploring festival opportunities, and from there distribution. It’s all pretty new to me, so I suspect getting into some good festivals will help us attract a distributor. I’d love a run at an art house in New York City, like Film Forum, or the Quad, or a run at Anthology. There’s a lot of research and reaching out coming up, and I’m psyched for it. Also, I have to admit that the word Plotz is funny every single time. I’m so glad I didn’t call this The Sisters Smith. You’re just not going to have a bad day if you’re saying things like “Let’s try to get Plotz to Cannes.” I’d also love to show this on TV; ideas come to me all the time and I’d like to keep living the Plotz experience. It’s been very hard since filming ended and I have to confront not really having a butler, so I’d like to continue this for a few more years. Plus, the Tina Fey’s  film Sisters comes out in December, and Amy Schumer is writing a sister comedy with Jennifer Lawrence, so I kind of think we’re on to something.

For more information on tomorrow’s screening, go here.

“Saints and Strangers”: Verdict at the Mid-Point

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Television with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by travsd

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Just following up on yesterday’s enthusiastic plug for Saints and Strangers to pull back a little. I’ll probably watch part two tonight, but I’m indifferent as to whether I see it or not, as what I’ve seen so far isn’t what I would call up to the mark.

The aspect of the show that I am most enthusiastic about (and it’s not insignificant) is the visual. It looks gorgeous, and near as I can tell it looks correct, in terms of sets, props, costumes and so forth. A major thing one seeks from such historical dramas (at least I do) is a kind of immersive virtual reality fantasy. You want to be “taken back”. If it weren’t moving so fast (more on that below) this film would achieve that.

I also approve highly of the casting. This is in some senses an all-star cast, or at least a B list cast of cult favorites, and I’m real happy with the actors and the acting I see on screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell from Mad Men) as William Bradford is not only terrific, he looks terrific (shaggy hair, whiskers and all). He’s even better in this role than he was as Pete, and I hope it bodes well for his future career. Ron Livingston (whom we always call “the guy from Office Space but he’s had a lot of other great roles, but that one is indelible) is Jon Carver, Plymouth’s first Governor — also great. Ray Stevenson (whom I loved as Titus in Rome) is very well cast here as  the trouble-making John Billington. The first half hour or 40 minutes virtually belongs to the lovely Anna Camp (fresh in my mind from her recurring role on The Good Wife, which we’ve been binge-watching, but she’s also on True Blood) as the despondent Dorothy Bradford. In a BRILLIANT bit of stunt casting Tatanka Means, son of Native American actor/ activist Russell Means plays the suspicious Hobbomock, advisor to Massasoit. And there are several more like this. It’s very strange that the National Geographic Channel isn’t promoting the involvement of these people more, as it would attract viewers I should think. But they seem to have made the decision to make the Mayflower Passengers “the stars” of this movie, and that’s laudable as far as it goes (we’ll address where they fail on that score below as well).

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So it looks great, and is well acted, so what’s the problem? Well, there’s the minor issue of the script. The main problem is that the creators have bitten off way more than they can chew. It’s really an unwinnable war, trying to cram these events into two 2-hour telefilms, with breaks for commercials. As it is, they truncate it in truly harmful ways. The story begins when the Mayflower is halfway across the Atlantic, and so we don’t get ANY important context about who these people are, what they believe, or what they have already gone through prior to the voyage (it was a lot). I’m sorry, but religion is a SLIGHTLY important aspect of this story, don’t you think? The film-makers attempt to tell this slice of the story on the fly, as the “Saints” squabble with the “Strangers” (i.e. the half of the ship’s company who weren’t Pilgrims) throughout their travails. But that doesn’t begin to do it. Who are these people and what did they believe? I still don’t know, halfway through the movie. (Well, of course I know — but not from watching this movie).

A small portion of our main characters

A small portion of our main characters

Then, on top of that, given the time constraints they try to squish SO much in, and it’s still far from sufficient. There were 102 passengers on the Mayflower and 30 crew. You can’t tell ALL of their stories, although that’s what tv docudramas always try to do. Thus, really, NONE of their stories get told, because every character gets two seconds here, five seconds there. People die but I have no idea who they were because I never met them. I STILL don’t know if William Brewster is in the story at all. He’s somewhat important to the story of the Pilgrims, yah? I noticed most of the other key Mayflower characters in the film last night, but if Brewster was in it, it slipped by me and the character isn’t listed on the IMDB page (many of them aren’t). THEN, on top of that, the script has to accomplish so much of a factual nature that every single line is an on-the-nose, expository factoid designed to communicate with the audience far more than to the other characters. Even so, important events drop out, or are given far too little weight as they whiz by at breakneck pace. I know the story quite well by now, thanks to this book and others, but I swear if you didn’t, I’m not sure what you’d get out of this.

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But that’s not all! Because for a story that’s ostensibly about the Mayflower passengers, (in the title, in all of the promotions), the film ALSO takes on the additional story of the Native American leaders. And may I say, seems to care more about them in the bargain, as they are easily the most compelling, focused and interesting characters, as written. There are fewer of them, their motives are clear, and we can easily tell them apart, which is more than you can say for most of the Pilgrim characters. And that’s fine. In fact an ENTIRE movie from that perspective would be cool. But it’s taking too much on for a movie that probably clocks at about three and a half hours.

The bottom line is that the story they want to tell ought to be a mini-series at least. And it would be the coolest! But I’m telling ya, you need a week’s worth of episodes at the minimum: 1) Scrooby, 2) Holland, 3) Mayflower Voyage, 4) Landing, etc etc etc right on through the First Thanksgiving. That television event awaits – -I hope somebody does it! What’s more I hope somebody does it with THIS cast, director (Paul A. Edwards) and design staff!

Moran and Mack are “HYNPOTIZED”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on November 22, 2015 by travsd

Hypnotized 1-sh

Today is the birthday of Charles Mack (1887-1934), the senior and more comical member of the blackface vaudeville comedy team “Moran and Mack”, a.k.a. “Two Black Crows” (for more on the team see my original post here). In observation of the day (we can hardly say “honor”) we dredge up the team’s 1932 feature Hypnotized. (The offensiveness of blackface is a given. We write about that aspect of the practice here frequently. All the more reason for it to be evaluated and studied as a bellwether of the attitudes we hope to extinguish).

This is Mack Sennett’s last feature, and to watch it is to watch the reason why. Sennett was a great, even inspired producer and studio chief, and the Godfather of the American Comedy film, so I am of course saddened that his studio went out of business in the mid ’30s. But that he stopped directing? I’m okay with that. Normally his thing was shorts (i.e., short films, not underwear, although the latter could occasionally be pressed into play in the service of the former). But occasionally he did pull together the wherewithal to make a feature and some of them were fairly significant and have aged as well as can be expected: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), A Submarine Pirate (1915), Mickey (1918), A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), A Small Town Idol (1921), and The Shriek of Araby (1923). But by 1932, Hollywood studio product had gotten pretty slick, and Sennett, who had learned his craft around 1910 hadn’t really progressed as a director to match the times. If he had continued directing, my guess, based on this film and others, like The Timid Young Man (1935) with Buster Keaton, is that later films with Sennett at the helm would have been something like those of guys like Jean Yarbrough, William Beaudine or at best Norman Taurog: butchery-hackery in the service of good-natured but idiotic dreck.

Hynotized has a top flight cast (in addition to the titular stars there are Wallace Ford, Charlie Murray, Ernest Torrence and Marjorie Beebe), a fairly good script, and professional (expensive looking) sets and settings. But the direction and editing are très primitive; it simply looks and sounds technically shabby. At this juncture (money woes caused by the Great Depression combined with a critical attitude on the part of the audience towards film folks from the silent era), Sennett couldn’t afford reputation-wise to put this sort of product out.  It can’t have helped him any to secure directing work when his studio folded. (And it didn’t. He got to direct some shorts at low rent Educational Pictures, then they too went out of business. After that, Sennett couldn’t even get arrested.) So you can see why this movie is so obscure today. The ineptitude, combined with the now socially disfavored blackface, render Hypnotized unwatchable by most contemporary standards as anything but a historical curiosity. (I was amused to see that a company that sells the film on DVD uses the attractive lure, “It’s not nearly as bad as people say it is!”) But as a historical curiosity, it is well worth watching.

Anyway, it’s set in a circus. Ford plays an elephant trainer who falls in love with a gypsy princess singer (Maria Alba). At first he’s nasty and surly but then he wins a horse race and now he’s emboldened to tell the girl how he feels. Charlie Murray is the circus owner and ringmaster. He arranges big public circus wedding and sells tickets to it. Then Ford never shows up. The girl is devastated. Murray escorts her back to Europe on an ocean liner. Then they spy Ford and his sidekick (Charlie Mack. Though this is billed as Moran and Mack vehicle, the former is scarcely in the film at all, a factor of their constant squabbling). It turns out Ford and Mack were hypnotized and enslaved by an unscrupulous hypnotist (Torrence) and employed as his assistants. (Vaudeville trivia: That line which the hypnotist uses when he mesmerizes someone, “Rigid!” would have been recognized by audiences at the time as the signature of stage hypnotist Pauline.) Now that Ford and Mack are found, there is all sorts of running around the ship business, it gets quite crazy. People keep falling into swimming pools. Finally it all sorts itself out as comedies do.

The irony is that Hypnotized fails at the main thing we’re hoping to get out of all this, which is a proper peek at the vaudeville team of Moran and Mack. Like many a desperate producer, Sennett hired the team to exploit their fame without adding to it. The movie needed to be as good a showcase for the their reputed talents as their comedy records. In the end, it is only a curiosity.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 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.

Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show”

Posted in British Music Hall, Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by travsd

Poster - A Night in the Show_01

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy A Night in the Show (1915).

This short from Chaplin’s Essanay period is extremely interesting for two reasons. One is that it is essentially a filmed adaptation of the Karno music hall sketch A Night in an English Music Hall or Mumming Birds, the one in which Chaplin starred as a drunk and which brought him to the attention of Mack Sennett. Thus it is the closest thing we have to a record of the performance that led to him becoming a movie star. Secondly, the film is set at a vaudeville theatre. Thus we get to see one of the few contemporary efforts by a filmmaker to dramatize a vaudeville setting. As the film was made in 1915, even though it is fiction, it offers up many valuable details about what the experience of attending a vaudeville show was like, not just the stage performances, but what it was like to be an audience member. And, a third intriguing element – -Chaplin plays two roles: a drunken rich swell, and one of the hoi poloi up in the balcony.

zoom_1418769103_A_Night_In_the_Show_-_Chaplin_Restored_program@2x

The film may contain Chaplin’s best drunk turn, in a career full of the cinema’s best drunk turns, as the top-hatted inebriate, annoys everyone else all the way into the theatre, onstage and off. In addition to a balcony full of ethnic stereotypes (blackface, a Hebrew, a guy in drag playing a woman with a baby), we get the performers onstage: a plump belly dancer, a snake charmer, a comedy team named Dot and Dash, and a fireater. That’s a show I’d like to see!

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

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