Archive for March, 2017

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by travsd

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

 

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The studio was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest film companies, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at the various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save costs, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton. (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, he bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On the Short Life and Career of Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

Our Gang’s Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (1925-1945) was born on this day. Wheezer was part of the Gang from 1927 through 1933, which, if you’ll do the math, takes him from age two to age eight.

Eight is a young age at which to retire even for a child-star, and there has been much speculation as to why he was let go so early, given that he had been one of the more prominent and better known of the kids (they usually got to hang around until they were about 12). Aural testimony handed down through books and press accounts relate that his parents were very intense, constantly jockeying for their son’s advantage, and possibly even mistreating him with their ambitiousness.

But, purely on a gut level, I have my own theory, and it’s kind of the elephant in the room. HE’S NOT CUTE AND HE’S EXTREMELY UNAPPEALING. In fact — God forgive me — I’ve always found him kind of gross. He got the nickname “Wheezer” because of his noisy, unhealthy breathing, and he just has this puffy, hairless, glandular looking face, with rheumy eyes, and prominent gums, and probably a nose that won’t stop running. He was undoubtedly a cute li’l nipper when he was two, but long about 8, the feedback probably largely consisted of “Ugh” — making the parent’s pushy attitudes even less something Hal Roach and his cohorts were willing to put up with. Sorry to be so rude and blunt, but A is A, as Aristotle taught. In a business of cute kids, you’d better be a cute kid — and not have a name and demeanor that reminds you of disease.

Wheezer had starred in some of the shorts, and also appeared in a couple of feature films, but after 1933 he was permanently “at liberty” and returned with his family to Tacoma, Washington, from whence they came. Sadly, Robert Wheezer died in an airplane accident while serving in World War Two. Not a happy story — essentially he was robbed of both his childhood and his adulthood.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on classic comedy, including Our Gang please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

MEM’RIES OF THE 2017 CONEY ISLAND USA SPRING GALA

Posted in Amusement Parks, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , on March 27, 2017 by travsd

I believe The Wizard of Oz put it best: “A heart is judged not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” The phrase never made a lot of sense to me until Saturday night at the annual Coney Island USA Spring Gala. A lot of people were showing a lot of love for the old sideshow. It was a lot like the atmosphere at a wedding, when you encounter people from every phase of your life. I saw lots of old pals and collaborators I’ve known for 15, 20 years along with plenty of new ones. The tentacles of the octopus that is CIUSA are just out there everywhere…all of these different subcultures (sideshow, circus, burlesque, fashion, history, vintage, indie theatre, performance art, visual art, CULINARY art, rock and roll, and I know I’m leaving some out) all coming together, not just being under one roof, but really coming together, as though to have this place in common is to have everything in common.

And then all of the SUB-disciplines: “”Ah, I see all the sideshow and variety show PHOTOGRAPHERS are here!” Because there is a freak paparazzi. I only took a handful of snaps (I was having too much fun) and they don’t even begin to convey the craziness to be had. Fortunately, others captured it all for posterity. Perhaps because world affairs are so grim, there was plenty of happy madness afoot. There’s something extremely special about the transformation of the already surreal Coney Island USA complex into a landscape even more dreamlike and liminal.

For a supplemental visual record I highly recommend checking out Jim Moore’s post at Vaudevisuals.com, which is especially strong on the all-star  variety show on the mainstage, which included host Adam Real-Man, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, Circus Amok’s Jennifer Miller, the amazing Velvet Crayon, the Great Fredini, etc etc etc. While Jim was taking those pix, I was over in the VIP room, where the performances were more burlesque oriented (and watched the sideshow on a video monitor). I saw Gal Friday and Julie Atlas Muz and Shelly Watson and Jo Boobs Weldon and several Miss Coney Islands take the stage. I got to chat with most of these folks as well as Juliet Jeske, who did face painting, Gary Dreifus who did walkaround magic. Dame Cuchifrita provided high end consumptibles, and I’m inevitably leaving many people out.

At any rate, I urge you take the whole ride right down to the bottom. It gets wilder as you go. Raymond Adams got some of the best party pix. The uncredited ones are by me, and there are also some by Jim Moore and Norman Blake, and like I say, Jim Moore’s pix of the show itself on his his blog are amazing.

Original sideshow art by Marie Roberts on the auction table.

An array of delicious cakes. Uncharacteristically I didn’t take any. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Life is full of regrets.

A close up of a cephalopod cake decoration.

A mer-drink.

Photo by Norman Blake taken early in the evening of myself (right) with CIUSA board chairman Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum and Jim Moore. Shortly after this, Dr. Birnbaum started running around wearing a pinhead mask.

Hydra-Headed vintage entrepreneur Don Spiro was on hand with his lovely companion to dispense absinthe. The line for his product was deep. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, attend one of his monthly Green Fairy Absinthe Tasting Parties at the Red Room.

These gents are the Apple Boys, a Barbershop Quartet

The inevitable Reverend Billy was on hand to give the proceedings his blessing.

Billy and his congregation hoist CIUSA founder Dick Zigun into the sky and throw him around the room some.

 

Go-Go Dancers on the Freak Bar.

Me with burlesque biologist Pinkie Special and Collective Unconsciousness’s Caterina Bartha.

Took this one shortly before I slipped out. If you missed the gala, don’t worry you can still give them money! All you need to know is at the Coney Island USA web site.  The sideshow opens for business next month and the Mermaid Parade, as always, will be in June.

Though I Didn’t Come From Vaudeville, I Did Come from This

Posted in AMERICANA, Blues, Comedy, ME, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by travsd

Providence, 1950. The only thing different in 1970 or 1980 were the cars.

One of the questions I have been frequently asked in the context of having written No Applause is “Did you have relatives in vaudeville?” and my usual answer is along the lines of , “No, other than myself, I have no connection to show business.” But that’s not quite true. My brother Larr Anderson is a musician and I’m certain a good portion of my love of show business rubbed off on me from him. He’s best described as a raconteur — always full of hilarious stories of his experiences (old ones and new ones), and jokes he heard from other performers while working in clubs and bars. It was glamorous and exciting to me as a kid, and his stubborn pursuit of his own dreams was an undoubted model for my pursuit of mine.

I’m from Rhode Island; our local cultural center was Providence, and with the fullness of time I can see how its local show biz culture influenced me as a teenager. In the ’70s, Providence, like most small New England cities, was trapped in the past, if only for economic reasons. The industries that had made these towns hum early in the 20th century had fled. New things were not being built; sometimes at night the streets looked deserted. In some ways, it could be depressing, but it also gave a town like Providence a kind of funky retro chic. It looked trapped in the 1940s or ’50s. Its largest landmark (now called 111 Westminster) was an art deco skyscraper built in 1928, colloquially known as “the Superman Building” because it resembled the one George Reeves flew over in the ’50s television show. It was a gritty noir town, full of diners and lunch counters and dive bars and mafia hoodlums.

Talking Heads, prior to being joined by Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers

Some of its aesthetic crept into New Wave music, I think. Local artists throve on vintage culture; old threads from consignment shops, and self-consciously kitschy home decor. The best known exponent of this culture is The Talking Heads, three of whose members met at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and played locally as “The Artistics” in 1973 before moving to NYC.

Also from the RISD scene in the ’70s was Charles Rocket, best known today for being fired from Saturday Night Live in 1981 for uttering the word “fuck” on national television. (This despite his being the most popular cast member of the first season following the departure of the original cast; he was touted as the “new Chevy Chase“.) Rocket later had prominent roles in films like Dances with Wolves and Dumb and Dumber. He originally fronted and played accordion in a Providence band called The Fabulous Motels. Rocket’s frequent partner in crime was a painter and performer named Dan Gosch. (The two were known for staging protest publicity stunts at the State House dressed as super heroes.) Gosch painted a locally famous mural of weird faces at a bar/restaurant called Leo’s, where I later worked my way through theatre school as a dishwasher.

Another hugely influential local phenomenon was a band called The Young Adults. My best friend’s cousin Ed “Bumpsy” Vallee was its guitarist, and another of their line-up Thom Enright was a close friend and frequent band-mate of my brother’s, so I got to hear The Young Adults’ satirical set a lot, and their funny songs like “A Power Tool is Not a Toy”, “Fallen Arches” (about an explosion at McDonald’s) and their best known song “Complex World” (which later became the title of their 1992 movie),  definitely influenced me as a songwriter. Their best known member David Hansen (a.k.a. “Sport Fisher” — for whom a sandwich at Leo’s was named) left shortly after the band started to gain some momentum and formed Cool it Reba (named after a remark frequently uttered by Soupy Sales) in New York. The other key member was a character named Rudy Cheeks, probably the biggest local star, a hustler who not only fronted The Young Adults but wrote a funny column in the New Paper (later known as The Providence Phoenix) called “Phillipe and Jorge’s Cool, Cool World” and screened B movies while making wisecracks into a microphone, decades before Mystery Science Theatre. Rudy writes about his memories of how all these players (Talking Heads, Fabulous Motels, Young Adults and others) overlapped and interacted here. 

Martin Mull is also a comedy/musician who came out of the RISD scene (he studied to be a painter), and whose path crossed many of those on this page, although he quickly moved to Boston, and then the world, after graduating. There’s a great article about his early years here.

Another key artist to emerge from this scene (possibly even better known in some quarters than David Byrne and Talking Heads) is Brenda Bennett, of Vanity 6 a.k.a. Apollonia 6, one of Prince’s many side projects, whose day in the sun was the mid 80s. The attached article mentions two of my brother’s pals and bandmates Phil Green and the aforementioned Thom Enright as key people she met and played with early in her career. Enright had also played with Beaver Brown, which achieved mainstream success in the mid 80s with the song “On the Dark Side” and the Eddie and Cruisers soundtrack. To my amazement, the article also mentions that her brother, along with the above mentioned Ed Vallee of The Young Adults were in the band Universal Rhundle together. My brother had mentioned this band to me when I was a kid. It became the inspiration for this play of mine.

Roomful of Blues 001

My brother is a drummer who has been playing professionally since he was 11 years old. We wrote a little about here about how he knew folksinger Patrick Sky in his younger years (Sky started a coffeehouse in our hometown). He played in all kinds of bands over the years, but the strongest thread was his participation in the blues revival of the 1980s. Roomful of Blues is one of the best known local bands in that movement; they were formed in Westerly, Rhode Island, where I was born. My brother has sat in with them and played in many bands with their guitarist Chris Vachon, including his current one Li’l Shaky and the Tremors (see bottom of this post for an important update!) Roomful’s bassist Preston Hubbard also played with the better known Texas band Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was part of the same national movement. My brother also played in a trio with Duke Robillard, best known as a member of the original Blues Brothers line-up before quitting in disgust (or being fired for mouthing off, depending upon who tells it).

As a kid, I was often taken to bars and clubs to see my brother play (things were more relaxed then) and once I even got to hang out in a recording studio and watch him and his friends record a single. But for the most part, in my little seaside hometown, I was far from the action. The above-mentioned New Paper was one of my lifelines. It was the equivalent of our local Village VoiceIn addition to Rudy’s column, it carried Doug Allen’s deadpan comic strip Steven and, unless I misremember, also Feiffer, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World and Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer — although some of this may be bleeding into my memories of my first days in New York and the Voice itself. The New Paper featured left wing writing on local politics and reviews and ads for local bands like (in addition to those named and others I will name) Throwing Muses and Steve Smith and the Nakeds.

Another of my lifelines was Brown University’s fm radio station WBRU. They played mostly dinosaur rock, but I especially lived for the weekly show of one “Dr. Oldie, the Dean of the University of Musical Perversity”, who spun mostly singles from the 1950s, often very obscure and strange ones, not the usual hits. I learned to my shock just now that he is the same guy as John Peck…aka, The Mad Peck, the co-author/illustrator (with the fascinating Les Daniels) of the seminal, groundbreaking book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, as well as the famous Providence poster:

A terrific article in the Providence Journal here about Peck and his interactions with many of the above-named players.

The local band (outside of my brother’s influence) I followed most closely was the neo-psychedelic outfit Plan 9, whom I got to know from my friend Colin Cheer, who took guitar lessons from their leader, a scary-looking dude, with a wild, frizzy mane of hair named Eric Stumpo (yeah I know that’s bad grammar — fuck you). Through Plan 9’s influence, I discovered ’60s garage rock of the proto-punk variety…not to mention the film for which the band was named, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Colin introduced me to all the punk music going up until that time 1982-3-4. But I liked 60s’ garage rock more, which is why I remain well versed in punk only up until the early 80s…I know very little of what came after. Colin, me, and our friend Alex Nagle briefly had a band called the Happy Machines. I played drums on a make-shift kit made up of my brother’s castoffs. We only played a couple of gigs — we chased most of the audience away. But Alex later joined Plan 9, which was quite a step up. We weren’t close but Colin was a big influence on me when I was about 17. One cold winter night we spent the entire evening running around the streets of Providence. He took photos; I wrote a play based on some characters I witnessed. Dysfunctional Theatre presented it a few years ago, I call it The Big Donut. Later I slept on Colin’s sofa in Boston on one of my first attempts to leave the nest when I was about 19. (I have one very cool anecdote of that experience, but that one I may have to fictionalize that one).

The Arcade in Providence, the oldest mall in America and the improbable, but actual, location of Periwinkle’s Comedy Club

One other Providence name I want to drop. Janeane Garofolo did her first stand up dates at Periwinkles Comedy Club in the Providence Arcade when she was a student at Providence College in the mid ’80s. I’m almost exactly the same age and performed there at around the same time. When I saw this mentioned in the book We Killed a light dawned: “Ah!” I think we may have performed on at least one bill together.

At any rate, working on this piece has been a revelation for me…comedy and music are the most important parts of show business to me (even better when they’re mixed), and I am also pretty obsessed with vintage pop culture. It’s pretty clear that I am a product of Providence, that the roots of No Applause are in the culture of Providence, and my gateway to that was my brother Larr.

And, now after all that lead up, an old fashioned plug. My brother’s band Li’l Shaky and the Tremors, led by Chris Vachon of Roomful, has a new album called Aftershock, released by Alligator Records. Guest artists on the record include Brenda Bennett of Vanity 6 and Ed Vallee of the Young Adults! It features ten vintage rhythm and blues covers and is a great illustration of what these guys have been doing all their lives. You can get it here and I hope you do!

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

What use have I for a flesh-and-blood man when I now have one of these?

Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

“Chained”, 1934

There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.

web_cast_jessicalange_feud_570x698

We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).

 

The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by travsd

Time once again to celebrate the birthday of Leonard “Chico” Marx (1887-1961). Today seems to me an appropriate time to float a notion I came up with the other day, a way of looking at the Marx Brothers films of the much-maligned MGM period (1935-1941.)

I hasten to point out that in no sense do I claim the ideas I am submitting are a real thing. They constitute a theory, not a thesis. It may be a useful lens for trying to understand these somewhat unfathomable years, when the team seemed to jettison the essence of what had defined their characters and comedy for most of their careers (around a quarter of a century) and to change into altered personas in new kinds of vehicles that didn’t suit them as well.

We begin with the observation that a shift in cultural taste was occurring in the late 1930s. Whether the shift was initiated by audiences or producers, or both in tandem, is unknown and maybe unknowable, but what we observe across the popular arts (movies, theatre, pop songwriting), is a movement away from the aesthetics of vaudeville (formal, stylized, artificial, surreal) and closer towards realism (literal, logical, comprehensible). I see several possible factors at play: a) the death of the big time vaudeville circuits in the early 1930s; b) the advent of talking pictures — the most accurate method of recording reality in history — in 1927; and c) the advent of radio, a medium that also exposed audiences to reality, in the form of extemporized performance.

Tastes seem to become more prosaic and less “smart”. Fantasia, clown make-up, verbal wordplay pass from the scene, to be replaced with plausibility and relatability. If Clark and McCullough and Wheeler and Woolsey represent the early ’30s, Bob Hope is the face of the end of the decade. He makes wisecracks but they are not TOO crazy. He’s a little goofy but not TOO strange-looking or acting. At the same time, there appears to be a trend away from the verbal, word-based joke (Burns and Allen) to those which de-emphasize The Word and replace it with, for lack of a better word, Funny Faces (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello). Settings for stories become less whimsical (Klopstokia) and more quotidian (a night club).

Amidst this time of transition, the Marx Brothers began the second phase of their movie career. The earlier, Paramount films (1929-1933) stuck to a formula consonant with their vaudeville and Broadway successes, highly surreal in character, and dominated by Groucho and Harpo. In 1935, through the influence of Chico, they signed with MGM, whose production head Irving Thalberg preferred to stress the importance of story. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that the zeitgeist seemed to overwhelm the team’s natural voice. And this is what I am calling “the Chico Period”. By using that term, I don’t mean that Chico is now suddenly the star of these pictures (A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West and The Big Store). Far from it. It’s that the new settings and style are most harmonious with, less catastrophic to, Chico’s character. In fact, in certain ways, at certain times, he comes out ahead, although the gains are brief and full advantage is never made of his being better suited to the changing milieu than his brothers.

One of these guys looks relatively real, and it’s not the one in the wig or the one with the greasepaint mustache

Granted there were deleterious changes to Chico’s character as well. Gone now were the avalanche of puns and misunderstandings derived from his traditional vaudeville dialect humor, which had been funny precisely because they were an implausible stretch. The accent remained, but his joke material now consisted mostly of “stupidity” and simple-minded malapropisms. But unlike Groucho, for example, his status does not fall. Groucho had been the boss or the guest of honor in the first five movies. In the MGM ones he tumbles down to Chico’s plane (in A Night at the Opera, quite literally — he is thrown down some stairs). Groucho had always been screwy, illegitimate and manipulative, but never seedy or low-rent. Chico had ALWAYS been seedy and low-rent. Unless you’re talking about mathematical computation, Chico is not the high brow of the Marx Brothers. These dumbed down new Marx Brothers movies seem to fit him better than the other two. A racetrack, dodging a hotel bill, these are Chico places and predicaments. In A Night at the Opera and The Big Store he is made to have a relationship to the ACTUAL Italy, an unprecedented amount of realism for a Marx Bros. picture, no matter how cockamamie. This is CHICO’s world. So much so that in A Day at the Races, At the Circus and Go West Chico actually bests Groucho in several swindles and other encounters. In At the Circus, he’s actually the guy who hires Groucho — THAT is the new dynamic.  And though Harpo is by far the most entertaining, the least compromised, in these later films he also doesn’t quite BELONG there. For better or worse, Chico belongs there.

Say, maybe it IS a fantasy — in real life, Chico would NEVER turn his back to the betting counter!

After the team broke up the first time (1941), Chico fronted his own big band, proving again that he was very in tune with the times. It was hip to be a musician in the ’40s. But his character was beginning to outlive its welcome, what with ACTUAL Italians like Lou Costello, Dean Martin, Tony Pastor (the singer), Vito Scotti, et al becoming popular on the radio and on movie screens. And at last we again reach a point where Groucho makes out better than Chico. After all, Groucho could grow a real mustache. Chico couldn’t become a real Italian.

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

At any rate, I offer this up merely as a way of looking at the team’s misguided last studio films. Nothing will make them less terrible, but they may possibly be made less inexplicable.

 

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