Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’50s

Tomorrow evening, Turner Classic Movies continues its month-long series on movie slapstick with a look at the 1950s (and one from the early ’60s). As I wrote in Chain of Fools, with certain exceptions the form was well into its decadence at this stage, with its masters aging out and few worthy successors emerging. TCM is very wisely leading tonight’s program off with one of those exceptions:


8:00pm (EST): Mon Oncle (1958)

The great Jacques Tati’s most successful comedy in his own day and without a doubt one of his best. I am almost willing to sign off on the rash statement that Tati was the ONLY slapstick film practitioner worth talking about in the ’50s…but I am willing to talk about others, however deeply flawed. Tati had enjoyed such great success with 1953’s M. Hulot’s Holiday that he brought the character back for Mon Oncle, which is much more ambitious in every way. Again, he satirizes the bourgeoisie, with a focus now on post-war materialism and modernity. Unemployed Hulot lives in a shabby but picturesque Paris of the past. His sister and her family (rich husband and son) live in a nightmarish suburban home full of the latest gadgets and styles, all productive of everything but happiness. Hulot’s unfortunate interactions with his sister’s world is the engine of the comedy, and there is much in it that echoes earlier visions of Keaton and Chaplin, repurposed for the jet age. Tati would become a major influence on Jerry Lewis, whose 1960 directorial debut The Bellboy would never existed without it.


10:oopm (EST): The Long, Long Trailer (1959)

I love it when a movie title seems to taunt and dare the reviewer into turning it against the film-makers. For this feature-length comedy experiment by then-tv stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is indeed tedious and repetitive enough to be called long, long and long again. It is a perfect storm of comedy genres I can’t stand, notably a) the”money pit” genre, and b) the “husband browbeats his ditzy wife” genre (which of course was the crux of the I Love Lucy premise). And c) feature length films with insufficient stakes. Indeed, the premise of this film should at best sustain a two-reeler (and there were many two reelers with such plots back in the day): a husband and wife buy a very large trailer and attempt to live in it as they cross the United States to the husband’s new job in Colorado. And don’t the darnedest things happen along the way? Not really. It raises no laughs but it certainly raises my blood pressure. Its one virtue is gorgeous color photography of the American landscape by director Vincent Minnelli. 


12:00am (EST): Scared Stiff (1953)

A remake of Bob Hope’s 1940 The Ghost Breakers starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, their ninth comedy together. It has the plot of all spook comedies. Some comedians get locked in a haunted house, see what they think are ghosts, yell “yow!”, and run from room to room, really scared. As you can tell I’m not the hugest fan of this genre either, mostly because it is too predictable plot-wise, and the gags are rarely inventive or interesting. The cast includes Lizabeth Scott, Dorothy Malone, and (in her last film role) Carmen Miranda. And, in a cameo, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (repaying Martin and Lewis for their own recent cameo in Hope and Crosby’s The Road to Bali).


1:45am (EST): Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959)

Well, too bad for the Three Stooges. The team would have been shown in a much better light if this series had included one of their shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. Their late career features were the team’s worst iteration, aged, toothless, and saddled with their weakest single member of their long career, Curly Joe DeRita, an unworthy replacement in the slot formerly filled by Curly Howard, Shemp Howard, and Joe Besser. Contrary to the claim on this poster, and to the team’s constant grousing on the subject, this was far from their first feature. They had been in several of them since the 1930s, and had even co-starred in the B movie western comedy Gold Raiders with George O’Brien. But it’s true that this is the first time they are the titular and only stars on the marquee, expected to carry an entire picture on their own. It’s yet another tedious comedy subgenre (“Whoops! Whoa, I accidentally pushed the wrong button and went into space!”), similarly explored in films like Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, and Don Knotts’ The Reluctant Astronaut. I haven’t seen this one since I was a kid, though, so I will be most curious to give it another go.


3:15am (EST): The Good Humor Man (1950)

The always welcome Jack Carson as the titular ice cream jockey, who gets embroiled in murder and intrigue. It may not sound like much, but the fact that Frank Tashlin wrote and Lloyd Bacon directed are signs that it is worth a look.


4:45am (EST): Carry On, Teacher (1962)

Only the third in the long-running “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” British “Carry On” series, this one set in a high school. Ted Ray plays a principal who must get everything ship-shape for a visit by a Ministry of Education Inspector. Carry On regulars like Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams round out the cast.

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



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