Archive for the Comedy Category

Stars of Slapstick #226: Walter Forde

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1039: Arthur Pat West

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

April 19 is the birthday of Arthur Pat West (1888-1944).

Today West is best remembered among vaudeville fans for his 1929 Vitaphone short Ship Ahoy, in which the stout little man comes out in a sailor suit, does a rather rude comedy monologue and sings a couple of funny songs while pretending to play the guitar.

Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, West (sometimes billed just as Arthur or Pat) had been in a team called Arthur and Lucille West with his wife Lucille Harmon. In the ’20s, he was cast in a number of Broadway shows: the Fanchon and Marco musical revue Sun-Kist (1921), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923Paradise Alley (1924), and Captain Jinks (1925-1926) with Joe E. Brown. 

After Ship Ahoy, West performed in at least one other Vitaphone Gates of Happiness (1930) and remained in Hollywood where he worked as an (often uncredited) bit player for the rest of his life. Initially, he was in Columbia comedy shorts and B movies, but he worked constantly and in the late ’30s through the ’40s he wound up in numerous classics, usually playing a bartender, waiter or similar kind of character. You can see him in Bringing Up Baby (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Babes in Arms (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Great McGinty (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), The Outlaw (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Road to Utopia (1945), among dozens of other pictures. Keep an eye out for him!

To find out more about vaudeville 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 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

An Easter Message

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Easter with tags , , on April 16, 2017 by travsd

“Hannah, can you hear me?” Paulette Goddard as the hope of the world in “The Great Dictator”

Holidays in the western world are a Pagan thing, a Roman Thing. The earliest Christians (the last true Christians, the kind of people who gave their lives rather than deviate from their principles, which meant unwavering self-denying altruism and suicidal non-violence) were against holidays as sensuous distractions, the very opposite, in fact, of everything their religion valued. But the conversion of Pagan (Gentile) Europe meant compromise, and church leaders and theologians were fairly ingenious at how they wed the two seemingly incompatible religious systems together.

Christmas, Halloween and Easter are the most visible fruits of those efforts. Halloween errs on the side of Paganism, but I’m from the Episcopal church which does a very good job of reminding its parishioners that Halloween is “actually” All Hallow’s Eve — the night before All Souls Day. These three holidays (Christmas, Halloween, East) are married to the seasonal pivots, which were holidays in the Pagan world. As is the holiday for the fourth season, summer, though that one for us in America is a little more scattershot. In Europe there are things like St John’s Eve, Midsummer etc but here in the U.S., the Fourth of July finally wound up serving that purpose. That holiday evolved quite differently and has its own specific, separate meanings but serves the same purpose…the picnics and cookouts and so forth celebrate the arrival of summer.

At any rate, over time, I’ve finally come to appreciate Easter. As any former child can tell you, of the four seasonal holidays, Easter generally comes in a distant fourth. John Oliver cracked a joke about it a few weeks ago, quipping that Easter is like a form of Christmas where all you get is a basket of beans. Oliver is a comedian. Hopefully, adults have more investment in their symbolic holy days beyond what they will “get”. The crucial thing about Easter (and the vernal equinox) is that they are about renewal, a clean slate, the possibility of starting over again. When I was a kid, those were a bunch of boring words. Kids ARE the chicks. That’s scarcely a metaphor, it’s just about literally true. What does a baby care about babies? An infant does not contemplate infancy. You have to have seen a good many Easters go by before you start saying, “I wish I could start this whole thing over again”. Not only must a lot of water have passed under the bridge, but a good many doors must have now been CLOSED to you, perhaps never to be open again. The things you didn’t do, perhaps you will now never do.

Perhaps. But. Except. Spring and Easter are here to remind us that regrets are wintertime thinking and winter isn’t forever. Though the present moment undoubtedly SUCKS (and let us extend the Easter portrait by saying that it sucks EGGS) things can and will get better, in fact MUST get better as part of the natural order of things. Maybe not two minutes from now, but they WILL get better. I promise.

This year Easter happens to fall on Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. I can’t think of a more heartening Easter message for today than Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator. The text and the clip are both available at the official Chaplin web site here. 

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

To find out more about vaudeville and 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 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

Add “Man on the Flying Trapeze” to the National Film Registry!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , on April 14, 2017 by travsd

Please join the campaign to vote for Man on the Flying Trapeze as the next W.C. Fields film added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Go to to www.wcfields.com where the nominating form is on the Home page column to left – National Film Preservation Board!

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedians, Comedy, PLUGS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on April 12, 2017 by travsd

David Letterman’s birthday is today. We wrote a couple of earlier posts with some thoughts about this influential show biz figure (here and here), so today, I thought I’d plug Jason Zinoman’s must-read new book Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night. We much enjoyed his earlier book Shock Value (reviewed it here) as do we particularly relish his comedy coverage for the New York Times. The marriage of author and subject promises to be nothing but fortunate in this case, and we can’t wait to sink our teeth into it. It was released yesterday.

Beverly and Betty Mae Crane: Hal Roach’s Twin “Talking Titles”

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2017 by travsd

Twin sisters Beverly and Betty Mae Crane were born 100 years ago today on April 11, 1917.

Originally from Salt Lake City, the sisters were talented dancers who were hired by Hal Roach to speak the opening title credits to some of his shorts, including those starring Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang and The Boyfriends, from 1930 to 1931. This charming innovation is very characteristic of the earliest days of sound, as much “theatre” as it is cinema. I find something so charming about the films of this era; there was a lot of creativity during this time of transition. I love the Warner Brothers credits too where they introduce all the actors at the beginning with their names and those of their characters, as in a theatre program. With the art deco backdrops and the ballet costumes, and the fact that girls spoke in unison, the whole presentation is quite magical — there is something very “Oz” about it.

The girls worked for Roach between the ages of 13 and 14. Afterwards, they continued to work professionally. They danced and played bit parts in movies from 1932 to 1934. They were in the cast of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ on Broadway (1938-1941). They dance in the Vitaphone short All Girl Revue (1940). By 1941, Beverly had retired and married an air force officer. Betty Mae continued to dance professionally, initially with the Ernest Belcher dancers.

Betty Mae died in 1983; Beverly in 2006.

For more on classic comedy 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

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