The Most Profound Blooper Reel in History

For the record, I generally scorn blooper reels; as something to laugh at they rank for me somewhere below farts and dick humor and that is very low on the Travy Scale indeed. But one of our streaming services was offering Classic Movie Bloopers: Uncensored (2013), and I found myself curious (and skeptical) as to whether they had anything good, i.e. whether there was enough such material out there to sustain an entire feature. (The movie’s title, by the way, contains unfortunate grammar. The producers, of course, don’t mean these are “classic bloopers”; they are bloopers from movies from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Therein lay the film’s only interest to me.)

At any rate, I found myself mesmerized from the very first clip. Almost the entirety of the movie consists of major Hollywood stars flubbing their lines and then cursing. I find this kind of thing unworthy as humor, but I did find myself instantly drawn in by the documentary aspect. The effect is very similar to watching home movies of the early 20th century, or very early color film, or combinations of both, which are best of all. Something like awe takes place. We are coming as close as we can get to experiencing what it was like to be alive during those earlier decades. The experience is rare, by definition, because most Hollywood films of those times are so stylized: shot in black and white, heavily art-directed, staged on artificial studio sets, and containing stylized, sanitized dialogue that is at variance with real speech. The clips in question contain moments that violate that stylization. The actors drop character, and for brief seconds we glimpse their real personalities as they interact with their colleagues. Suddenly we feel much closer to them. A gulf has been bridged.

And, as the title of the film indicates, the actors curse when they make boo-boos. Ordinarily the mere concept of somebody cursing, even eminent personages, isn’t intrinsically funny to me. I did however find myself fascinated by their existence at all. Contemporary period movies set in earlier times often depict people swearing, but I’ve often found myself a little skeptical, simply because we are so far removed from the social reality of it, and because contemporary writers often get so much wrong when tackling period material, imposing contemporary behavior on people who lived in “simpler times”. But here are scores, probably hundreds of evidentiary exhibits that establish once and for all: people in the ’30s and ’40s swore pretty much like we do — at least movie actors did.

I found the clips unexpectedly illuminating and even moving. Some reaffirm our ideas of the stars; others shock us by violating them. For example, it makes perfect sense that Gary Cooper’s most frequent oath is a relatively tame “nuts!”. On the other hand, to see sweet, soft-spoken Olivia de Havilland exclaim “God damn it!” takes us by surprise. As opposed to, say, hearing Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck swear like sailors, as they do here and as we always knew they did. In fact, Bette Davis is the only one we hear utter a clear, unmistakable “Shit!” (Some get close with a “Shhh!” before stopping themselves, which I found illuminating about the times).

There are absolutely ZERO F-bombs, although John Garfield comes close with an aborted “Fffffff!” I remember the F word being shocking and rare as recently as the 1970s, so I’m not surprised that even free-spirited actors didn’t employ it in the workplace 30 or 40 years earlier. The vast majority of curses are some variation on “God damn”.  And as I say, sometimes the reward is because we expect it. It feels natural to hear oaths fall from the lips of guys like Garfield, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and George O’Brien. But it is most delightful to hear them being spoken in the stentorian, articulate stage speech of English thespians like Claude Rains, Reginald Gardiner or C. Aubrey Smith. Lionel Barrymore gave what was perhaps my favorite variation, “God damn my soul!” he cries when missing a line in a scene with Bogey and Bacall in Key Largo. Another oath that’s become rare but you hear a surprising lot in the film is “Balls!”

“Shit, darlings!”

I also loved what the clips reveal about personalities. Just little tiny moments that speak volumes. Sometimes the actors are pissed and angry with themselves, like Eugene Pallette in one scene where he keeps messing up an unconscionably long introduction to Spencer Tracy. Just as often, it’s a moment of joviality, and the whole set breaks up. Often the actors will apologize good naturedly to their colleagues (“I’m sorry, darlings!”, chirps Davis when she keeps sliding on a patch of slippery floor.) I found myself choked up to see Will Rogers give Fifi D’Orsay a reassuring pat on the arm when she keeps flubbing a line. Robert Montgomery does something to Bette Davis when the lights go out that makes her shriek and then they both crack up — he clearly pranked her in a naughty way in the dark. Ann Sheridan affectionately calls Errol Flynn a schmuck following one take. Eve Arden accidentally twists a line into “Are you getting any lately?” making scene partner Ronald Reagan crack up. (There is far too much of Reagan in the movie. I guess the producers think it’s especially funny to see a former President forget his lines and swear. It’s not.)

And I’ve got to say, whenever I see Lou Costello performing spontaneously and freely, like in live television or radio or home movies or whatever, I always like him far better than in his Hollywood films. There are several scenes of him doing things to crack up his fellow cast members. I bet he was best of all live on stage, his true element. Anyway, Costello utters the only “Screw you!” in the show.

One error (or misrepresentation) the film makes: the famous “earthquake footage” of W.C. Fields, Franklin Pangborn and others during a scene in International House, was actually a hoax cooked up by Fields and director Eddie Sutherland. Sutherland admitted as much in the 1970s, yet it’s still being circulated as the real thing, even as recently as 2013!

Anyway, Classic Movie Bloopers: Uncensored appears to be up on Youtube. I won’t link here, lest it go dead. Just go there and do a search for it. I found it shockingly enjoyable.

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