Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick of the 30s

As part of their monthlong slapstick series, tomorrow TCM will be showing several classics from the 1930s — the first decade of talkies. Unsurprisingly, and much to their credit, they include some lesser-known but deserving comedies, and the well-known ones they have selected, are germane to an exploration of slapstick per se, not easy to do since that was the decade when all the important discoveries made by silent comedy were thrown under the bus. Bravo, TCM!


8:00pm (EST): Dollar Dizzy (1930)

With the utmost curatorial intelligence, they launch tonight’s program with a pair of shorts by Charley Chase, a perfect transition from their last installment, which highlighted silent comedy of the ’20s — including silent shorts by Chase. Hal Roach had uncommonly good luck in getting his silent stable across the sound barrier. Besides Chase, he had excellent good fortune with Laurel and Hardy (also included in tonight’s program) and the Our Gang series. His former leading star Harold Lloyd also weathered the transition well. In Dollar Dizzy, Chase and Thelma Todd each play rich people who have to fend off a series of greedy gold diggers who want to marry them. Who do you think they’ll wind up with? Also in the cast: Edgar Kennedy, Jimmy Finlayson, Dorothy Granger and Charlie Hall. 


8:30pm (EST): The Pip from Pittsburg (1931)

Charley Chase gets fixed up on a blind date and does everything he can to show up unattractive (all his previous such dates having gone so poorly). To his dismay, the date turns out to be the eminently desirable Thelma Todd. This one as directed by Chase’s brother, the brilliant comic artisan James Parrott.


9:00pm (EST): Sons of the Desert (1933)

Directed by William Seiter, this remains one of the all-time favorite Laurel and Hardy  films among fans. As they often do, Laurel and Hardy play hen-pecked but rebellious husbands on a tight leash. Their wives here are played by Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy. In this film the boys are not literal “Sons of the Desert” (which can be a little confusing because in a couple of their comedies their characters join the French Foreign Legion). In this case, the “Sons of the Desert” refers to their fraternal lodge and the boys are just itching to their annual convention in Chicago. Naturally their wives won’t permit this, so the boys claim that Hardy is sick and must go to Honolulu for his health. (A hilarious irony — who wouldn’t prefer to go to Honolulu than Chicago?). In Chicago they woop it up with Charley Chase, at his comical best as an obnoxious drunken lodge brother from Texas). Then the newsreels begin to cause trouble. The wives learn that the ship their husbands were supposedly on has sunk. They grieve. Then later they see newsreels that show their husbands drunkenly cavorting at the convention in Chicago. They fume. The boys are busted. The wives allow them to hang themselves with lies upon their return before they throw them out. Their is an extended climax with Hardy on the roof at night during a rainstorm, just one of many Hardy rooftop sequences.

This film is best known today for supplying the name of the international Laurel and Hardy society, one of the largest and heartiest of all movie star fan clubs. Learn more about the group here.

The premise of this film (and similar Laurel and Hardy comedies) had an extended reach, for it was much emulated by Jackie Gleason in the The Honeymooners in the early 1950s, and then later by Hanna Barbera on The Flintstones in the early 1960s.


10:15pm (EST): The Music Box (1935)

Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box is considered by many, with justification, to be the greatest comedy of all time. Its virtues are strictly formal, of course. It’s a movie about two (rather dumb) working stiffs moving a piano up the longest staircase in the world. The beauty is how MUCH comedy they milk out of this simple premise, and how it builds and escalates, and continues to keep on giving all the way through. Directed by James Parrott, this movie won an Oscar for best short in 1932 — one of the few times in history an American comedy masterpiece has gotten the kind of recognition it deserves.


11:00pm (EST): A Night at the Opera (1935)

I’ve blogged about this classic Marx Brothers movie at some length. read my full explication here. 


12:45am (EST): Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this Wheeler and Woolsey musical comedy (co-written by frquent Marx Bros collaborators Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual, is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”.


2:00am (EST): Elmer the Great (1933)

 Joe E. Brown was the biggest comedy star of the 1930s, making dozens of hit films in just a bit over a decade, and has now been so completely forgotten that modern audiences only know for one line he uttered in a film he made as a kind of career afterthought (Some Like It Hot). Whenever I mention Brown, people inevitably try to impress me by uttering that line. In honor of Brown, I respond with the scorn they so richly deserve. Brown was a GREAT comedian. Elmer the Great is part of his so-called Baseball Trilogy. This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end.


3:30am (EST): Movie Crazy (1932)

Harold Lloyd ‘s third talking feature is a terrific movie, in my view as good as his best silents. Movie Crazy casts Harold as a boy who spends all his time dreaming about being in the movies (much of it seems lifted from Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl). Due to a mix-up, a major producer actually summons him to Hollywood for a screen test. After a disastrous first encounter a beautiful young starlet (Constance Cummings) falls for him; he’s the only man she’s ever met who’s too goofy to be on the make for her. The movie is chock full of great gag sequences, many of them reminiscent of the silent days. In one, hired as an extra, he spoils every single shot the director tries to take. In another he loses his shoe in a torrential downpour and follows it down the street, which has now become a river. (I would be very surprised to learn both of these scenes didn’t inspire similar ones in Blake Edwards’ The Party). Probably the most famous scene in the film is when Harold goes to a social function and causes all kinds of havoc when he accidentally puts on a magician’s coat, leaving eggs, a rabbit, doves, and white mice all over the place. This scene would be much imitated by the Columbia shorts department in years to come.


5:15am (EST): Sweet Music (1935)

One of the last of the old-style early Warner Brothers’ musicals, with Rudy Vallee in the usual Dick Powell role as leading man), Ann Dvorak, Ned Sparks, Helen Morgan and Robert Armstrong (best known today as the movie producer character in the original King Kong).  It’s screwball energy is a good indication perhaps of changing tastes and things to come, thus a fitting note on which to end the evening’s program.

For more on silent comedy and slapstick film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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