Archive for the Clown Category

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

Why My Low Regard for Lou Costello is Not Just “My Opinion”

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2017 by travsd

On the other hand, my high regard for the skill of Bud Abbott is a matter of record.

Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.

What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.

What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history.  And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.

To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?”  My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.

Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.

I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:

  1. Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.”  The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not?  Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick!
  2. Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.

Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.

Right?  So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here!   It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi. 

How Laurel and Hardy Became a Team

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2017 by travsd

339246_Laurel- Hardy- biographical film

Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media, copyright (c) 2013, Travis Stewart, All Rights reserved 

Despite the fact that Our Gang/ Little Rascals entertain audiences right down to the present day, it is still not the most successful Hal Roach comedy series. That honor would have to fall to the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who surpass even Harold Lloyd as the biggest comedy stars to come out of the Roach lot in terms of fame and longevity. Odd to report that the two men starred in far more movies separately than they did apart. When they were teamed in 1927, each of the men had already been in films for years, Hardy since 1913, Laurel since 1917. Even if they had never been paired, each of them would most certainly have rated inclusion in this book on his own merits.

Oliver Hardy had spent almost the entirety of his 14-year solo career as a reliable ensemble player. He usually played the “heavy” or comic villain, taking the kind of parts Eric Campbell or Bud Jamison had gotten , but obviously in films less prominent then Chaplin’s. He is unique in being one of the first movie actors to have been almost wholly a creature of the cinema (that is, he had a very minimal stage career; he went directly into films). A son of Southern Aristocracy, Hardy had done a little professional singing as a teenager, but nothing like the day-in, day-out job-of-work vaudeville and circus careers of a lot of the comedians we have discussed in these annals.

At age 18 he got a job as manager of a movie theatre in Milledgeville Georgia, where he ran the projector, ripped tickets, and swept up the popcorn. After three years of watching movies every day, he decided he knew all he needed to know to be up on the screen himself. He moved to Jacksonville, Florida (then one of the country’s several movie-making centers) and broke in within a few months, becoming one of the principal comedians of the Lubin Manufacturing Company. It was during this time that a local barber, while shaving the baby faced comedian, gave him the nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: Babe. When Lubin went bankrupt, Hardy went to New York for several months, jobbing for various studios. But the Big Apple didn’t suit this courtly southerner; he leapt at the chance to return to Jacksonville to star in the “Plump and Runt” series for the Vim Comedy Company.

A decade and a half from creating his famous persona, he truly is a “babe” in these early comedies. In One Too Many (1916) he sports a full mop of wavy curls on his head, and plays a lazy, layabout nephew suffering from a hangover, reminiscent of many Arbuckle characters. The plot is that old comedy stand-by: “I have to pretend that I have an infant, or Uncle will cut off my allowance.” In desperation, he hires a cigar smoking hobo to play the baby; it turns out about as well as expected. Battle Royal (1916) gives one a taste of one of the few amenities Jacksonville had to offer not available in Southern California: the Hatfields-and-McCoys style feud comedy is filmed in a Florida swamp. It’s a location I’ve not seen in any other film of the period and really worth watching for that novelty alone (because that’s about all it has to offer).

As close as we’ll ever get to a Chaplin and Hardy team-up,though Billy West is a surprisingly good consolation prize

Vim was purchased by King Bee and it was during this period that Hardy played the heavy for Billy Wests’s series of Chaplin imitations. Out of the half dozen or so of these I have seen, Hardy’s best turn is in the 1918 Charley Chase-directed He’s In Again, in which he plays a heavily-made-up Eric Campbell style waiter (a la The Immigrant) who has to keep throwing West’s penniless and conniving tramp out of a saloon.

With his hands full of Semon

In 1917, Hardy moved to Los Angeles, gradually working his way up to supporting player for Larry Semon. His roles are scarcely more distinguished in these pictures, but Semon was a big star and so Hardy enjoyed wide exposure as a result of appearing in them. Still, after the initial burst of “Look! It’s Oliver Hardy!” one’s interest begins to wane. He is an ensemble player merely; the Oliver Hardy we love so well from later pictures is entirely absent. In films like Golf, The Counter Jumper, The Barnyard, etc. etc. etc. (there are a lot of them) he tends to be your run of the mill stooge in overalls, just another body to bounce Larry Semon off of.

A thorn in Charley Chase’s side in “Isn’t Life Terrible?”

By the mid-1920s Semon was starting to flounder at the box office and that’s when Hardy began to work for Roach. Thanks to his high visibility in the Semon films he was among the many not-quite-stars that Roach cast in his “All-Star” series, trying to make that title a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, he gets much juicier turns. In Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925) he plays Charley Chase’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law, a lazy hypochondriac whose “weak heart” gets him a pass on doing any work, but conveniently qualifies him to tag along on the family vacation. (The movie has a happy ending though. When the ocean liner they’re taking stops off in South America, he is shot by a firing squad!)

In Yes, Yes, Nanette (1925), Hardy plays the former boyfriend of Jimmy Finlayson’s new wife (Lyle Tayo). Finlayson (still known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as  Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star, like in this one. The Scottish comedian had gotten his start at Sennett and other studios in the late teens, gotten frustrated with playing supporting roles and come over to Roach in 1922. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. There’s plenty of room for that in Yes, Yes, Nanette as Hardy’s character bullies and badgers the newlywed groom, until he snaps and sends the much larger Hardy running down the street with his tail between his legs. The film is especially notable here because it was directed by another member of the Roach All-Stars: Stan Laurel.

Laurel’s resume was quite different from Hardy’s.  At the time of their teaming, he was a stage veteran who had been tried and failed by several major movie producers in his own starring series over a period of a decade. Nearly everyone who watched him perform saw promise; all that was wanting was the right combination of ingredients to make his talents click. But they never seemed to materialize before he started working with Hardy.

Born in Lancashire in 1890, Stan was the son of Arthur Jefferson, a successful actor/manager and playwright. His parents struggled during Stan’s early years, but success came to Jefferson in 1896, touring the provinces with the melodramas that were so popular in that era. When Stan was 12, the family moved to Glasgow where his father managed the Metropole Theatre. When he was a teenager, Stanley made his debut at a local music hall. His father approved and got Stan a job with Levy and Cardwell’s Juvenile Pantomimes, with whom the boy performed for two years.

Laurel and Chaplin (center) w/ Karno & Co. during their U.S. vaudeville tour

In 1910, Stan was discovered by Fred Karno. By this time, Chaplin was already the Karno’s company’s principle comedian. Laurel was made second comedian and Chaplin’s understudy. Upon the troupe’s return to England, Stan left to tour music hall with his own sketches. He was on the brink of starvation when Karno manager Alf Reeves offered him a slot in the 1912 U.S tour. The troop was an even bigger hit this time around, word of mouth and memory serving to amplify audience expectations. When Chaplin left the company to make films, Karno lost all of the upcoming bookings. The act disbanded in 1913.

Some went back home to England, but Stanley Jefferson elected to stay in the land of opportunity. He teamed up with two other Karno alum, Edgar and Wren Hurley as “the Three Comiques”. Stanley wrote a sketch for them called “the Nutty Burglars” that played Chicago and environs for several months. On the advice of booking agent Gordon Bostock, the troupe then began to call themselves the Keystone Trio. Stan started to do his character as Charlie Chaplin, and the Hurleys began to do their parts as silent comedians Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand. I guess this was in the days before lawsuits. Anyway, the deception made the act highly bookable, and the team worked the Poli Circuit for many months, finally breaking up over “creative differences”.

In 1915, he teamed with Alice and Baldwin “Baldie” Cooke to form the “the Stan Jefferson trio”. This knockabout team followed very much the same formula as the Keystones (without the silent film star rip-off) with a sketch called “the Crazy Cracksman” they worked the Proctor, Fox, and Pantages circuits for two years.

Stan and Mae Laurel: Jolly good show! Ripping, wot?

In 1917, Stan met (and fell for) a woman named Mae Dahlberg, an Australian woman who was part of a dancing sister act. Stan dumped the Cookes and teamed up with Mae, making her both his comedy partner and common-law wife. (The fact that she had an actual husband down under stopped her from becoming the legal Mrs. Jefferson). It was Mae who gave Stan the surname the public came to know him by. With the high degree of superstition so common to stage folk, Stanley realized one day that “Stan Jefferson” has 13 letters. As the two were casting about for names, Mae cracked open a history book and saw a picture of Scipio Africanus wearing the traditional laurel wreath of a victorious Roman general. And that’s why we call him Stan Africanus. No, no, just kidding.

Stan and Mae struggled together in vaudeville and films for ten years. George Burns spoke highly of their two-act in later years. He recalled that Stan played Mae’s mother, cried a lot, and got pushed around a lot by Mae, who was a sort of matronly Margaret Dumont type. Onstage (and off it appears) Mae was the prototype of the countless shrewish wives that would be a staple of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy throughout their careers.

In 1917, the team was booked at the Hippodrome in Los Angeles. Producer Adolph Ramish caught the act and, impressed by what he saw, made a sort of demo film with Stan called Nuts in MayNuts in May previewed at the Hippodrome, where it was seen by both Carl Laemmle (the head of Universal Pictures) and Chaplin, who had been a star for three years by that point. Both expressed an interest in signing Stan, but only Laemmle acted on it.

 

In 1917, Stan launched the “Hickory Hiram” series of silent comedies around the eponymous rural character. The films tanked, proving the adage most succinctly expressed in Abel Green’s most famous Variety headline: “Hix Nix Stix Pix”. Jazz Age movie audiences did not go in for bumpkin characters. (tastes changed dramatically during the depression, however when Will Rogers, Chic Sale, and “Ma and Pa Kettle” would click big time with hick shtick. By that time, though, Laurel had long since moved on, to the character we all know him as).

It took years for Stan to catch fire in pictures. All throughout this period well into the 1920s, he continued to play in vaudeville with Mae, occasionally making films at various times for Hal Roach, Broncho Billy Anderson and Vitagraph, where he was teamed with Larry Semon.

Oh dear. In this photo Mae is plainly desperate to prove she was once Stan’s wife

(Mae was gotten out of the picture in 1925 by an enterprising producer named Joe Rock. Not only was she a scandal waiting to happen as Laurel’s long-standing common-law wife (cohabitation being frowned upon in those days), but she insisted on being in all his movies, and she wasn’t very good. The fact that she browbeat and controlled Laurel made her presence in his life further unwelcome. A large financial incentive got her on a boat back to Australia, and tellingly once that was accomplished Laurel’s career began to really take off.)

“Just Rambling Along” — Amusingly that’s not Hardy as the chef, but Bud Jamison. Some “types” just HAVE to be brought together

His earliest surviving vehicle, Just Rambling Along (1918), is an auspicious beginning, chuck full of funny gags and situations. The picture has a sort of Chaplinesque angle – Stan has no money to eat and finds himself trapped in a pay-as-you-exit cafeteria, frantically devising ways to escape before being kicked out into the arms of a waiting policeman. In Hustling for Health (1919) his character has shifted somewhat. Laurel (wearing a rather clown-like get-up) is about to go on vacation but he misses his train. Luckily his friend happens to be standing right there and offers that he come spend the vacation at his house. (Obviously the writers and producers didn’t think this through very thoroughly. The house appears to be in a typical suburban housing tract; why didn’t Laurel just go home?) At any rate, the comedy premise (and the explanation for the title) is that from the get-go, Laurel is made to work rather than relax. His character is much put-upon in this comedy, a very different sort of bloke from the freeloader in Just Rambling Along.

Laurel had the opposite problem of a lot of screen comedians. Because he was so well-trained, talented and versatile, he had a difficult time settling on a persona. Audiences, then as now, liked comedians to play variations on the same character from film to film. Laurel seemed to vacillate.  That he was an expert gag man there was no dispute.  He clearly had more going for him than most silent comedians of the day (say, a Chester Conklin or a Snub Pollard) but he was not (at least not yet) in a league with the giants. While good at gagging, he wasn’t much on story and downright weak on character.  He seemed to be going at it backwards. All of the great ones (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Normand, et al) developed the character first and let the gags arise from that. Then the narrative would evolve from the gags. Laurel seemed to start with the gags, leaving a hole at the center where the heart should be. His solo pictures are often funny enough but unsatisfying.

“West of Hot Dog” (1924)

The closest Laurel seemed to get to a recurring identity was a sort of mischievous young man with a Beetle Bailey-like aversion to work. “Dumb” or “slow” or “child-like” don’t yet enter to it – he usually wasn’t any of those things. We scarcely ever catch a glimpse of anything resembling his later character.  Often he comes across as more spritely than funny. His energy was like that of an adolescent. He had a habit when he was happy of running in place, or jumping from foot to foot.  He is not yet sporting the bed hair of his more familiar later character, but generally wears his hair slicked back, with a severe part in the middle, not too different from Alfalfa.

As with many comedians of the day, he often seemed to build the pictures around locations or work situations. In The Noon Whistle (1923) he is a loafer employed in a lumberyard, forever thinking of ways to hide his goofing off from foreman Jimmy Finlayson. In Oranges and Lemons (1923) he is a picker at a citrus grove. In Kill or Cure (1923) a door to door salesman. In such cases, the gags write themselves: people get hit with boards, or thrown fruit or stuck with bottles of poisonous patent medicine as the case may be.

Many of Laurel’s other films were burlesques of the sort Ben Turpin was already becoming famous for with Mack Sennett. These pictures tend to hang together better, because no real believable character is required as an engine to make it go. Among these were Mud and Sand (1922, a take-off on Valentino’s Blood and Sand in which Laurel played a Spanish bullfighter named Rhubarb Vaselino),When Knights Were Cold (1923, a spoof of Marion Davies’ When Knighthood Was in Flower), and Roughest Africa (1923, a very silly parody of safari travelogues).

Hardy and Laurel, listed separately amongst Roach’s All-Stars

Still, Laurel had a ways to go before he could be called a major comedy star. Roach wanted to change that. In 1925, in an effort to fill the void at the studio left by Harold Lloyd, Roach launched his All Stars series. For the most part the name of the series amounted to wishful thinking. The promised stars more often than not turned out to be comedians on their way up or on their way down. In 1927, two of the comedians included in that roster were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The evolution of the nascent team was rapid but not instantaneous. The two happened to be cast in some pictures together, it was noticed that they had some rapport, so they were gradually cast in even more pictures together, and finally a decision was made to formalize them as a team.  This was an extension I think of the same process that had begun to happen a few years earlier with Arbuckle, Keaton and St John. A certain chemical magic exists among some comedians who had previously worked independently. It takes someone to notice, take it in hand, identify its properties and codify it, but in such way as to not hamper their spontaneity. No one had really done that for Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John, but a sort of roughing-in had occurred…Arbuckle the hero, Keaton the friend or sidekick and St. John the rival. But it was still sort of loose and in flux. Hal Roach, on the other hand, aided by the supervision of Leo McCarey had seen what was latently there with Laurel and Hardy and proactively attempted to make something tangible out of it, including the historic contribution of matching bowler hats. (Interestingly, there had been initial talk of making Finlayson a formal member of the team as well. As it turned out, it worked out just fine with Fin as an adjunct member of the greater stock company instead.)

Their first scene together, six years prior to their teaming

Fortuitously, Laurel and Hardy had first appeared onscreen together several years earlier, though nothing came of it at the time. The movie is called The Lucky Dog (1921). In the film (undoubtedly inspired by A Dog’s Life) Laurel plays a ne’er-do-well who adopts a stray mutt and uses him as an excuse to follow a pretty girl into a dog show. Hardy plays one of his endless parade of armed robbers. This is the occasion on which the two comedians met for the very first time. Not particularly auspicious or seemingly significant at the time. There would be much water under the bridge before they would definitively join forces.

The potential for a team was apparently first noticed in the short Duck Soup (unrelated to the eponymous Marx Brothers film apart from the presence of Leo McCarey). In this film they are not yet officially teamed, merely co-starred, but they are amazingly like the characters for which they would eventually become famous. This is remarkable especially given that their roles are unlike what they have previously played and that they would revert to other characterizations immediately afterward. They play a pair of tramps who are fleeing a conscription of hoboes to fight a raging forest fire. They take refuge in a mansion where the owner is away for the weekend and masquerade as the owner and the maid (Laurel in drag). The owner returns early and furiously throws them out. They end up having to fight the fire –which they apparently started–anyway. Laurel is playing dumb (which he doesn’t always do) in this one. But Hardy is particularly close to what we know, perhaps because he is doing the kind of tramp who puts on airs. He sports a monocle and top hat, and exhibits a lot of the manners and mannerisms we associate with “Ollie”.

With 20-20 hindsight we can see that they’ve stumbled onto a discovery without realizing it. The powerful visual impression, with Ham and Bud as its obvious precedent, of two contrasting body types dressed identically, in this case, fat and skinny as opposed to short and tall. Laurel, by the way, wasn’t particularly thin at this stage in his life (and even less so going forward). The effect would be accomplished with over-sized clothes that made him look like a boy wearing hand-me-downs.

“Putting Pants on Philip” is their official film as a team — but they don’t play their well-known characters!

But apparently they would need to back away from this Eureka moment in order to notice what they had found. Over the next few films they would revert to other relationships and other characterizations, occasionally regaining a piece of it or making a new discovery but still not appearing as “Laurel and Hardy”. For example in Why Girls Love Sailors (1927) they couldn’t be any farther from a team. Laurel plays a boyfriend who has boarded a steamer to rescue his kidnapped fiancée; Hardy plays the vessel’s rough-and-tough first mate, much like the traditional heavies he had always played. Yet this is the film in which he discovered two of his lasting mannerisms: the nervous tie-twiddle, and the fourth-wall-breaking glare directly at the camera, as if to say “You see what I have to put up with?” To confuse matters, in their next few films (The Second Hundred Years, Hats Off and Do Detectives Think? all 1927) they are completely recognizable as the team we know them as (right down to the matching derbies) yet in their first official release as a team. Putting Pants on Philip (1927), they don’t wear the derbies and their characters are somewhat different (Laurel, for one, is a kilt-wearing Scotsman, and is much more like his traditional comic creations—energetic, and not particularly dumb). In their next one, though The Battle of the Century (1927) they revert to something resembling the familiar formula. It’s like that for the first several months, a little herky-jerky, until piece by piece, they magically discovered the characters, relationship and rhythms that would make them one of the most beloved comedy teams of all time.

As Walter Kerr points out in The Silent Clowns, the metronome was set by Hardy, whose wide girth and langorous Southern manners and pace were the very opposite of the under-cranked Keystone Kops and most other silent comedy as well. I’ll stick my neck out right here and now and say that not only is Hardy my favorite member of the team (most people prefer Laurel), he is also my favorite comedian – as a comedian — in this book. Watching him fills me with mirthful joy, mostly because of the absolute relish he takes in each and every gesture. Not just the obvious things like the tie-twiddle, or his embarrassed little wave. But how he does things: how he cocks his hat on his head when he is ready to take something on, or how, when he gets doused with a bucket of water he flicks the last drop off his finger.

 “Oliver” is a complex creation, much misunderstood. For example, it’s a gross mischaracterization to say that he is grumpy or even short-tempered. The whole point of the team’s films is that Ollie is naturally the opposite of that. In the early scenes of their pictures he is generally in a terrific mood, singing, smelling flowers, and so forth. As a character he is normally charming, gracious, and frequently (hilariously) bashful. All of these sweet qualities are necessary of course so that his face will have that much further to fall when Stanley ruins everything, as he inevitably does. And if Ollie blows his stack when Stanley causes trouble, well, who wouldn’t? Ollie’s not bad-tempered; he’s just normal.

I also don’t buy the line that Oliver is as dumb or dumber than Stanley which many commentators (including the comedians themselves) seem to espouse. Instead, what I observe in the films is that Hardy’s character is more worldly than Stan, knows on some level how the universe operates, has a bigger vocabulary, and would probably be just fine if he wasn’t saddled with his dim-witted partner. Hardy may be foolhardy and riddled with flaws, but in a milder sort of way than Laurel. He is impatient, vain and wildly overconfident in his own abilities. This causes him to make the mistake of initiating new projects and – the worst mistake of all – trusting Stanley.

It seems to me that any Laurel and Hardy movie is really a Hardy movie. He is the one we relate to (hence those shared moments when he engages the camera) and he is the one who goes on an emotional journey of some sort. Laurel, on the other hand, is merely a plot point, an obstacle, much like the female characters in some of Keaton’s films. This is not, by the way, to remotely put Laurel’s contribution down. Rather the opposite. His character is a force of nature akin to Keaton’s and Harry Langdon’s in that he is downright supernatural. He is not merely stupid, but he is completely vacant, like a beast of burden, like a black hole. That is why he is such an excellent gag machine. The consensus seems to be that the character grew out of Laurel’s need to adjust to Hardy’s slower rhythms, and in an effort to do so he (an encyclopedic gag man) plundered the Harry Langdon playbook. The child-like quality, the bursting into tears, the appearance of always being at least one beat behind – all these come from Langdon. Like Langdon, Laurel is a Holy Fool, so dumb that on occasion he doesn’t know that he should obey the laws of physics. There is a beautiful symbolism to the character (on top of the hilarity).  That he, like Keaton, never intended any, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The bird doesn’t know it’s singing, either. It just does it.

The combination of Laurel and Hardy is very much like two children who get each other into trouble. The effect of the story arc is usually enhanced by the respectability symbolized by the two derbies. This is the production house that gave us Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase, remember. This is middle class comedy. Their characters are members of the petit-bourgeoisie who in their films generally make the mistake of deviating from their routine. When you are Laurel and Hardy you must never try something. It generally leads to complete destruction. Often they are just a wee bit rebellious and like to step out on their wives. It is hard to judge the boys too harshly on this score since the deck is always stacked – they are invariably given a pair of terrifying spouses, rolling pin wielding shrews. Sometimes they are beautiful like Thelma Todd or Anita Garvin; sometimes a bit harsh like Mae Busch or Daphne Pollard. But the relationships are always oppressive and emasculating, inspiring the boys to assert their manhood by sneaking out to nightclubs and flirting with floozies. They like to whoop it up, but they always pay for it in the end. In one of the first of these Their Purple Moment (1928), they skip out on their wives and treat a couple of fast girls to a good time at a speakeasy. Unfortunately, neither Laurel nor Hardy has any money, so the boys will be doubly humiliated when their wives show up to bust them, as they will also have to bail them out of their jam. It’s a story template they would draw from for the next decade.

As a team, Laurel and Hardy played with audience’s expectations by ritualizing them, elaborating on them, embellishing them. They seemed to savor each moment, milk it, and wring every possible gag out of every situation. This is the word I would use for the duo: delicious. Even when I am not laughing I am filled with a pleasure from my head to my toes of the absolute poetry of their interplay. But times when I am not laughing at them are rare. As I said, Hardy is my favorite comedian, and Laurel, ironically the brains of the team, can’t help but impress me as well. Several of their shorts may be deemed among the funniest movies of all time, exceeding even those of Chaplin and Keaton. The fact is, I laugh longer and harder at their films than anyone else’s, and by a wide margin. Further, as with Keaton, the formal beauty of some of their moments on film often approaches dance or music, and even may be said to possess profound meaning.

I am thinking primarily of one of their most commonly used comic devises, dubbed by the duo and their support team the “Tit-for-Tat”. It’s an old English expression meaning roughly the same as “measure for measure”, “an eye for an eye” or “giving as good as you get”. By way of illustration one must unavoidably cite what may be their funniest movie (although it would be impossible to choose). In Big Business (1929) the pair are a couple of door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen who make the mistake of annoying Jimmy Finlayson one bright, sunny Southern California day. Fin slams the door in their faces, accidentally trapping a branch in the process. They irritate him some more by ringing the doorbell so they can free the tree, and then a kind of symbolic defilement happens as Laurel and Hardy proceed to destroy Fin’s house and all its contents, while Finlayson tears apart their automobile. By the end of the movie, all is rubble.

The humorous part of such exchanges is the veneer of civilization that governs them. It is a ritual, exactly like the chivalrous codes of a duel. One person stands and politely makes himself available as a target, while the other carefully takes aim and fires (or dumps a bowl of cake batter on his head, as the case may be). Often, as it is in Big Business, it is directed against a third party. Just as often, the boys engage in an internal quarrel and do it to each other. They each have their own style. When Hardy waits to “get his” he includes us, silently imploring “Isn’t this humiliating?” When Laurel waits he just stares vacantly at the ground like a cow or a mule, almost as though he’s already forgotten a scrap were in progress. When the deed is done, he merely blinks, the epitome of blankness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Laurel and Hardy’s greatest contribution to World Peace however is what I call the epidemic Tit-for-Tat. This a sort of comical zombie apocalypse scenario where the battle starts with a couple of characters and spreads to the general population like a virus, culminating in great, glorious set pieces of comedy, truly spectacular moments of cinema. This interesting innovation seems to have begun with Hat’s Off (1927), a lost film the first act of which was later remade as The Music Box (1932), substituting a piano for the washing machine in the original. The climax of the film had Laurel and Hardy mixing their hats up (as they would often do), then drawing another passerby in, and then another, until the entire street is full of mixed, discarded hats like some bloodless Antietam.

This was followed up with The Battle of the Century, a film justly renowned for showcasing the most epic pie fight ever recorded. How good it is? Let’s just say it’s impressive enough that even I like it, and I generally scorn pie fights, mostly due to that saturation and overexposure that has happened over the last century. In my view, a pie in the face ceased to be funny before your great grandfather was born. Buster Keaton agreed. When he started his solo contract in 1920 he vowed that there would be a moratorium on thrown pies; it was already a cliché by then. But Laurel and Hardy (and I of course include their directors, gagmen and co-stars) made ballet out of a pie fight – as they did with all physical business. In The Battle of the Century, the boys accidentally cause a pie delivery man to get one right in the puss. In retaliation, he starts to heave his wares out of his truck, which is naturally lined with an impossible number of pies. Soon, everyone on the street is drawn into the melee. The entire block resembles a Tong War, the entire atmosphere criss-crossed with airborne pies. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and that includes pie fights.

And so and so. You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) ends with a sidewalk full of people pulling each other’s pants down. In Two Tars (1928) an entire highway full of backed-up traffic breaks out in madness, with drivers tearing apart each other’s stalled vehicles like Finlayson had done in Big Business, only times 2 or 3 dozen. In Double Whoopee (1929) everyone in a hotel lobby breaks out in an orgy of eye poking, instigated, as in all these cases, by Laurel and Hardy. (Incidentally, this movie is doubly worth watching for containing one of the first screen appearances of 17 year old Jean Harlow.) Big Business and Putting Pants on Philip contain mobs as well: crowds of the morbidly curious who can’t resist rubbernecking at the unfolding mayhem. H’m…they sound like stand-ins for us.

From the late 20s through the mid 30s Laurel and Hardy were one of Hollywood’s most popular comedy teams, cranking out some 70 shorts and ten features – some of which (in terms of the laughter generated) are among the most perfect comedies ever made.

For more (much more) on Laurel and Hardy and silent and slapstick film comedy, please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media,

The Wild Party’s Over (But Not Really, You Have One More Chance)

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2017 by travsd

We have been following the progress of Jennifer Harder’s The Wild Party’s Over with great avidity ever since she won the well-deserved First of May Award from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which gives small grants to deserving variety artists to develop projects. She chose to adapt Joseph Moncure March’s book-length Jazz Age poem The Wild Party, an admirably daunting task, as it has been adapted for the stage before. We were privileged to be at an early reading she and her artistic partner Charley Layton gave at the Way Station, and to sit in on an early brainstorming session for the project. The pull of the material on Harder is not surprising; her former stage character Bathtub Jen evoked similar Jazz Age echoes of illicit, criminal life choices, of life on the lam.

The Wild Party is simultaneously a celebration of bohemian culture and a tragedy. Only the timid would take it as a cautionary tale. I’d much rather experience these events and LIVE… than last until I’m 95 without experiencing any such wild parties. (I was going to add that I might feel differently if I ever found myself at a party that ended up with a corpse on the floor, but then I remembered that I HAVE been to one that ended up with a corpse on the floor and I STILL find myself longing to be at such parties — just not that particular one.) Harder’s adaptation is wonderfully successful at evoking that feeling of nocturnal seduction as embodied by the Siren call of music. The cast of four (Harder, Layton, Natti Vogel and Stephen Heskett) are not just an acting ensemble but a rock band, working Blondie and Velvet Underground covers into the narrative in place of the Hot Jazz which would have been the original inspiration. Harder, as always, sings and plays trumpet; Vogel sings and plays piano; Layton mans accordion and guitar; and Heskett, to my surprise and delight played percussion and drums in the solid and basic manner of Mo Tucker. 

Heskett surprised in any number of ways. His normal stage presence is as a decent, nice All American fellow; here he is the villain of the piece, a rapey, woman-hating creep in clown make-up, part Joker, part Juggalo. The other three are manifestations of their normal stage characters in the variety world; Vogel doubles as narrator. There is more than a little Brechtianism in the presentation. It’s a wonderful showcase for the talents of all, and at just under an hour, completely lean and mean, and lacking in dead spots. Know that it’s a workshop, a work-in-progress, but my main takeaway is that it has lots of potential as a bookable, tour-worthy thing, with its compact troupe, minimal sets, and loads and loads of vivacity flying off the performers.

I was so jazzed by the show I was inspired to interview folks afterward…only to discover afterwards that the ubuiquitous Adam McGovern had already done so, and perfectly too, so I herewith direct the curious to his blogpiece here at HiLow. 

The Wild Party’s Over but not really — there’s one more performance on at the Tank April 20. I highly recommend it! And if you do attend, know that the fifth voice in the production, including the annoying neighbor is the show’s director Chris Rozzi. Chris is currently playing the Joe Weber part in my Weber and Fields revival project, which you can check out in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s gala on April 25. Don’t miss that either! 

Pepito and Joanne: Clowning and Contorionism

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by travsd

OF PEPITO AND JOANNE

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Today is the birthday of Jose Escobar “Pepito” Perez (1896-1975). Originally from Barcelona, Pepito got his start as a clown in Spain in 1914. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and performed on the Keith and Orpheum circuits.

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In 1928 he met dancer and contortionist Margaret Janet Zetteler (or Zettler, 1908-2004) at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, when both were booked to perform before screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. They teamed up, both onstage and off, and Zetteler’s name became Joanne Perez.

As vaudeville dried up they began performing at night clubs in the late 1930s an 1940s. Over the years, Pepito got various small roles on film and television, including several shots on I Love Lucy. They opened the Pepito and Joanne Academy of Dance, which Joanne continued to run for decades after Pepito passed away. Pepito also ran a charter fishing business.

The keeper of all things Pepito and Joanne is Melani Carty, who runs the Pepito and Joanna tribute website. The photos above are from that site. Check it out here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Barry Lubin Becomes the First Clown to Clown on Seven Continents

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety with tags , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

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In the midst of so many horrible precedents, and history being made in so many undesirable ways, something truly amazing happened. The great Barry Lubin, best known as the Big Apple Circus’s “Grandma”, became the first clown in history to have performed on all 7 continents. I want to be able to claim that he was also the first professional clown to perform in Antarctica but I’m not certain if that’s true (hundreds of people go down there annually to work now, and thousands of tourists visit annually on cruises). But I’m certain Lubin’s the first clown of such major stature to do so. The word “wonder” gets thrown around too much in the circus game, but this for once is a novelty that will put a spring in my step for some time. Thanks, Barry! This is in the great Houdini tradition, just going out in the world and doing something plum amazing to give the public a boost — just when we needed it the most.

Repose en Paix, Pierre Étaix

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd

Something fitting about Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix passing away within hours of each other. French clown, actor and comedy film-maker Etaix (1928-2016) was one of the happy discoveries I learned about when researching my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YoutubeI seem to recall first hearing about the artist from Steve Massa, and there was a big screening of his films (which had long been unavailable) at the Film Forum a couple of years ago.

Etaix is often associated with Jacques Tati (for whom he assistant directed, and with whom he got his start) but his character and his style are very different. He was also in the Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972), which it looks like we’ll all finally get to see at some point in the not too distant future. Etaix had many more screen credits as an actor than as a director. He only directed a few films; most of them are available on Youtube. I watched ’em all. This one is probably my favorite, and how perfectly timed for Hallowe’en (there’s more than a little Hammer Horror parody in the fantasy sequences here–very well done) . The film is called Insomnia (1961).  Even so, I hope you sleep well, grand-père drôle!

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