Archive for November, 2016

Klinkhart’s Troupe of Midgets

Posted in Circus, German, Little People with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd

vintage-vaudeville

I stumbled across this image the other day and got curious. I could only find a few facts: this troupe of little people was managed by German born Oscar Klinkhart (ca.1897-1975). They were with with the Al G. Barnes show between 1926 and 1931. According to some sources, they were later with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and got stranded near Riverside, California ca. 1936, where they founded one of the many legendary “Midgetville” communities. Later Klinkhart retired to Logsden, Orgeon.

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.

Bingo-a-Go-Go Starts Tonight

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd

15181400_1899621536935490_96507311025689853_n

Trav S.D. Talks W.C. Fields on “Hear and Now”!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, ME, My Shows, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd
Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

Photo by the one and only Killy Dwyer!

As part of Fields Fest, on November 17, your humble correspondent appeared on Rachel Cleary’s “Hear and Now” show on Radio Free Brooklyn to talk about the festival and the man at its center, stage and screen comedian W.C. Fields. Here’s the link to that historic exchange: https://www.mixcloud.com/RadioFreeBrooklyn/hear-and-now-with-rachel-c-with-travsd/

Come see me talk about Fields in person tomorrow night at the New York Public Library! 

Films of Fields #16: If I Had a Million

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , on November 30, 2016 by travsd

If-I-Had-a-Million-Lobby-Card

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

If I Had a Million (1932) was an all-star collection of stories told in discrete segments, each by a different director. The framing device (directed by Norman Taurog) is that dying millionaire (Richard Bennett) leaves his fortune to numerous complete strangers. The various segments concern what they do with their landfall and how their lives are changed.

The best known section of the film nowadays, called “Road Hogs”, directed by Norman McLeod, stars Fields and his then-frequent co-star Alison Skipworth as a couple of ex-vaudevillians who buy a whole bunch of automobiles and smash them up. It is on the basis of being part of the W.C. Fields canon that most  people recall the film today.

3348769

The other stories include:

* “China Shop” (also directed by McLeod) features a timid clerk (Charlie Ruggles) who uses the opportunity to smash everything in the porcelain shop where he works

* “The Clerk” (directed by Ernst Lubitsch) stars Charles Laughton, with an almost identical arc to the “China Shop” one just described

* “Three Marines” (directed by William Seiter) casts Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, and Roscoe Karns, as the titular three soldiers who foolishly sign over their dough to the cook at a lunch stand

* “Grandma” (directed by Stephen Roberts) stars May Robson as an old woman who stages a revolution at the nursing home where she lives

* In the raciest segment “Violet” (also directed by Roberts), a prostitute (Wynne Gibson) takes up residence in a ritzy hotel, where she luxuriates in the freedom of not having to sleep with a man for her board. (This was still the pre-code era).

* In “The Death Cell” (directed by James Cruze) a condemned man (Gene Raymond) gets the good news too late

* “The Forger” (directed by H. Bruce Humberstone) casts George Raft as a guy with a reputation for passing bad checks. Naturally with his reputation he can’t cash this one. Ultimately, it goes up in smoke.

Hearken All Ye New York Scots, It’s St. Andrews Tomorrow and This is The Only Place to Spend It

Posted in FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS, St. Andrews Day/ Tartan Day with tags , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

standrews2016

W.C. Fields and Games (And How Fields Evolved from a Juggler to a Comedian)

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Movies, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

I’ve long been interested in bearing down on the process by which W.C. Fields evolved from one of vaudeville’s greatest jugglers into the screen comedian we all love today. It’s a little mysterious, right? I had a general sense that he began to work comedy business into the juggling, then did sketch comedy including several routines that later became incorporated into his films. But what hadn’t dawned on me until I began to parse it out was the extent to which these routines were related to his juggling — in essence they were an outgrowth of the juggling, combining his crazy, whimsical imagination with his almost superhuman physical dexterity. Though the content of Fields’ revue sketches began to diversify as years went on, in nearly every revue that he appeared he had at least one physical routine based around sports or games, and this was the tether back to his juggling career, and the thing for which he was best known prior to his films. In fact, so great was his association with gaming routines that he was sometimes compared to British music hall comedian Harry Tate and even accused of plagiarizing him, much as he (much more obviously) had appropriated aspects of the act of tramp juggler Harrigan during his earlier days. But, in addition to the physical dexterity required for these tricks they also form a theme, a kind of metaphor throughout his work. Almost every one of his movies features one of these old stage routines, or alludes to them.

its-the-old-army-game-movie-poster-1926-1010705091

THE SHELL GAME

The shell game, a.k.a. “the old army game” is of course the traditional street con wherein the perpetrator manipulates three walnut half shells (or cups, or what have you) inviting onlookers to bet on which one is covering a pea he has shown to be under one of them. The game involves sleight of hand, and requires the same kind of dexterity required of a magician or juggler, combined with distracting patter. Fields had reportedly learned the the routine during his Philadelphia days at the knee of a character named Bill Daily, a.k.a “The Professor”, who was also his first manager. Initially the Professor’s confederate, he learned the routine himself and later claimed that if he were stranded in a town between vaudeville gigs, he could make a few bucks on the sidewalk at the shell game: “It’s the old army game! A child can play it! Five’ll getcha ten, ten’ll getcha twenty…” He alludes to the con of course in his film It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and actually demonstrates it in the talkie version of Poppy (1936).

7e72bfcb4ed9adb420d68b84c24e77ee

POOL

Fields’ pool routine is the mother of all that came afterwards. All his subsequent game-related sketches (leastways the ones employing balls) are variations on this one. Looking to expand beyond the juggling routines he had been doing onstage for about seven years, in 1903 he introduced a stage bit that involved a trick pool table, working every comic variation he could think of into the business, including funny pool cues, sections where he had difficulty threading a normal pool cue through his fingers, juggling style manipulations of balls and cues, and the wow finish, where all the balls went into all the pockets at the same time. The routine was so popular that it provided Fields’ entree to Broadway and films in the same year, 1915, when he was retired to do the bit in the Ziegfeld Follies and in his first comedy short Pool Sharks. Later, he would revive variations of the routine in his movies Fools for Luck (1928, his last silent film), Six of a Kind (1934), and Follow the Boys (1944). Regarded as a holy object, W.C. Fields’ pool table is now on permanent display at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles:

Fields' grandsons Alan and Rob and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields' biographers

Fields’ grandsons Alan and Ron and the pool table at the Magic Castle. Ron is one of the foremost and best of Fields’ biographers

hqdefault

GOLF

Given the size of a golf course as compared with a pool table, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Field’s golf routine originated onscreen as opposed to onstage. He first included a comical golf game in his second film His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915), not coming up with a stage version until 1918, when he introduced it at the Follies. He revived it the following year in Ziegfeld’s 9 O’Clock Revue, and then brought versions of it to several films: So’s Your Old Man (1926), The Golf Specialist (1930) The Dentist (1932), You’re Telling Me (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1938, and there is a brief office putting bit in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). By my count, he performs this routine more than any other, and it is hence probably even better known than his pool playing business. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen it, as with the pool routine it involves endless preamble to ever teeing off, with crazy, twisted golf clubs, and an annoying caddy who causes endless interruptions.

wcfields

CARDS

I’m not aware of Fields doing any poker routines onstage, but after golf and pool it is the game he engages in the most onscreen. This clearly has to do with thematic elements associated with his character and the plots that revolve around him, and it is one of the few areas of overlap he has with the Marx Brothers. It is more an outgrowth of his “shell game” persona. Interestingly he does very little with sleight of hand type card tricks, crazy shuffling or card manipulation, although he undoubtedly either had those skills or could easily master them. I’m not sure why, although one plausible reason may be that, as an old vaudevillian, he had a great respect for specialties. Such business was outside his usual wheelhouse and he may have felt uncomfortable either A) dabbling in a skill of which he not an absolute, acknowledged master; and B) stepping on the toes of the magic crowd. But he is often depicted humorously as a cheating poker player (often playing with decks with large numbers of aces) in such films as The Potters (1927) Tillie and Gus (1933), Mississippi (1935), and My Little Chickadee (1940). 

thumbnail4

 

CROQUET

Yes — croquet! This may be one of Fields’ less famous routines, yet it was the second one he devised for the Ziegfeld Follies, and if you think about it, a perfect transition between pool and golf. He debuted it in the Follies of 1916, and revived it in the 9 O’Clock Revue (1919). The one movie you can see it (or some of it) in is Poppy (1936). Fields was in poor health when this film was shot — I bet we would have seen more if he’d been in better shape at the time.

a4e5024cf829e4de762b2f89b4194855

 

TENNIS

The fact that the tennis routine was never filmed is one of the great losses to W.C. Fields fans! He introduced it in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, even before his golf routine, and I can easily imagine how great it was given his skills as a juggler, which he undoubtedly integrated into the bit. You can see him juggle rubber balls off the floor in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).I’ll bet something on that order was in the routine, as well as business with rackets, and stuff with balls on strings (as he’d done in pool and croquet). Also, tennis was Fields’ main active, recreational sport in his personal life. He was reportedly a great player, when he was still fit enough to play. The reason why it didn’t make it to film should be obvious; he was old and sick during the bulk of his film career and not up to the physical challenge any more. I bet it was great.

il_fullxfull-1067846112_3qzx

BASEBALL

This may be Fields’ most obscure routine. He devised it for George White’s Scandals of 1922, but it was considered too derivative of his other routines, particularly the tennis one. The usual business with funny bats and balls, crazy ways of hitting, etc. So, though he created and rehearsed it it didn’t make it to stage or screen. I’d still be curious to see it! In the end, the classic comedians most associated with physical baseball business would be Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton.

universal_its-a-gift

MOTORING

This comes more under the heading of “recreation” than “sport”. W.C. Fields was a major automobile enthusiast. When on tour in the Ziegfeld Follies (at a time when most performers traveled by train), Fields prided himself on motoring from town to town in his open-air auto. Colleagues like Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice later told hair-raising accounts of the experience of riding with him, as the half-cocked Fields drove down the highway at night at high speed. (On the other hand, consider the lightning quick reaction time and hand control Fields had). In the Follies of 1920, he premiered a sketch called “The Family Ford”, which featured comical business revolving around a family loading up their car for a vacation, a special breakaway car that fell apart at the end of the routine, like Harry Langdon’s. Funny car business winds up  in many of his movies. His segment (with Alison Skipworth) in If I Had a Million (1932) is about a brand new car that gets dinged up; It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940) both have breakaway cars; both You’re Telling Me (1934) and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) feature Fields chasing runaway tires down the street; and his last two features The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) feature crazy high speed car chases.

His last gaming business committed to film, as we said above, is the pool routine in Follow the Boys (1944). He had two years left to live at this point. By the time of his last film performance in Sensations of 1945 it was said that his eyesight was so bad he couldn’t see cue cards, so for sure he had also lost the physical dexterity that would enable to do the sort of things that had made him famous as a young man. He has a small bit of business in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, touching in its smallness, and so understated you may never notice how much physical control it required. It’s the scene where he stops off in an ice cream parlor, and has some difficulty delivering a cherry to his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. I find it touching because that was where he was at….his hands still had that control, but he could no longer be so physical with his old, ailing body. But if you’re clued in, you can see the young man in that bit, that same teenager who practiced with fruits and vegetables at his father’s Philadelphia produce stand.

 

 

 

 

Films of Fields #15: Million Dollar Legs

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by travsd

Look! It's so funny they had to put

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

Million Dollar Legs (1932), directed by Eddie Cline is one of many zany nonsense comedies Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in in the early 1930s. He wrote Wheeler and Woolsey’s Girl Crazy (1932) and Diplomaniacs (1933), wrote the story for Jack Pearl’s Meet the Baron (1933) and produced the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), in addition to Million Dollar Legs. He ultimately became best known for co-writing the screenplay to Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. The script to Million Dollar Legs was co-written by his brother Joseph, writer of many a notable screenplay himself, including All About Eve (1950).

Must be a work of genius, right? As far as I’m concerned, it is!

The film stars W.C. Fields as the unnaturally strong President of the fictional European nation of Klopstokia. By unnaturally strong, I mean he mean he can lift massive amounts of weight like a superhero.  Everyone in Klopstokia has some superhuman skill. His beautiful daughter (Fields always has a daughter in his movies) is played by Susan Fleming, who became Mrs. Harpo Marx four years later.

Klopstokia is a corrupt, divided and nearly bankrupt nation. Luckily one day a travelling brush salesman played by Jack Oakie comes to the capital and falls in love with the daughter. Realizing the potential of Fields athletic abilities (and those of every other Klopstokian) he hits on the perfect plan for getting them out of their financial difficulties — enter them in the Olympics! Unfortunately some are against this plan, and so they unleash the treacherous femme fatale Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti) an obvious play on Mata Hari, who makes all the athletes go literally weak in the knees. Also in the cast: Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Hank Mann,  Heinie Conklin, Billy Gilbert, Vernon Dent, etc etc. It must have galled old Mack Sennett to see Paramount make this movie with all his stars even as his own company was going under.

%d bloggers like this: