Archive for the Jackie Gleason Category

“Gigot”: Jackie Gleason’s Art Film

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jackie Gleason, Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is Jackie Gleason’s birthday – – a fitting time to talk about his most unique film, which is really saying something since his career also included Skidoo. 

The ultimate flowering of Gleason’s Poor Soul character was his 1962 film Gigot. Gleason wrote the story (turned into a screenplay by John Patrick, author of The Teahouse of the Augist Moon), which transplants his mute imbecile character to France in the 1920s, mashing up elements of numerous Chaplin and Tati films with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Gleason originally wanted Orson Welles to direct it, but Welles was still anathema in Hollywood and 20th Century Fox would not endorse the idea. It would undoubtedly have been a better film if they had done so. Instead they gave the reins to Gene Kelly, who was living in Paris at the time. Kelly allowed Gleason to give full vent to his self-indulgent instincts. There is very little humor in the film; most of it is maudlin kitsch, with Gleason constantly striving for our sympathy in a misguided effort to be Chaplinesque. Gleason does some of his funny dancing, and gives us a few slapstick moments, but most of the time he is busy being ridiculed and taken advantage of by cruel people, even as he cares for animals, a small child and a woman of the streets. It’s hard to be a Saint in the City. Gleason ought to be applauded for his ambition, but his notion to make the story French should set off alarm bells. The self-conscious bid to be “artistic” backfired with both press and public. Gleason was a great artist, but he made much better art when he stuck to what he knew, which was what went on at a tenement on Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

For more on classic comedy don’t my new 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

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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.

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MARX MOVIE MADNESS MONTH #31: Skidoo

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jackie Gleason, Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by travsd
This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

In celebration of Marxfest, every day this month we will be paying tribute to a different Marx Brothers film. While there are only 13 extant cinematic features including the entire team, we will make up the difference with solo film appearances, famous proposed but unfilmed features, lost films, and television projects. We’ll be moving through them chronologically. 

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend. (Interestingly, scholar Rob Bader showed a recent clip of Groucho on Gleason’s show from a few months before this movie came out. The two did a revamped version of the Gallagher and Shean song. You can see it on the upcoming upcoming Shout Factory DVD.)

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Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission.

"God", and his main chick "Luna"

“God”, and his main chick “Luna”

While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

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Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

At any rate, this concludes our month-long series on Marx Brothers movie appearances, but not my Marx posts. I’ve amassed a backlog during this busy month, and I’m going to try to post the rest of them today!

For more on comedy film history please check out my new 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.safe_image

Tomorrow, Start Your Sunday Off Psychedelically!

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Jackie Gleason, Movies, PLUGS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2014 by travsd

Or better yet, and more likely, end your Saturday in that fashion.

In the wee wee hours of tomorrow morning TCM will be showing two notorious psychedelic classics, starring (as such films always do) a fair representation of middle aged squares in ensembles with actual rock musicians and genuine weirdos, and a handful of marginally “representative” young people.

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2:00 am E.S.T.

Skiddoo (1968)

After a lifetime of reading about it (it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. Then, as now, they played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend.

skidoo-2

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho Marx) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission.

"God", and his main chick "Luna"

“God”, and his main chick “Luna”

While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

skidoo

images

Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did. I, of course, would be glad to watch it on a loop until the end of my days.

THE-BIG-CUBE

3: 45 am E.S.T.

The Big Cube (1969) 

As luck would have it, I watched this movie for the first time less than a week ago; for some reason TCM has it on heavy rotation! At any rate, it’s fresh in my mind, but I’m going to annoy the Duchess by DVRing it again anyway. This strange Mexican financed film features cinema great Lana Turner in one of her last roles as the victim of a plot by LSD peddling med school drop out George Chakiris (West Side Story) to get his hands on her fortune. The film is an uneasy hybrid of old school melodrama a la Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls and new realities — and it doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the new realities. Charikis’s character is internally inconsistent (he’s a bohemian dropout, but he’s also a scheming fortune hunter?) And there are just weird little touches (the hippies like to take their LSD in sugar cubes dropped into — get this — large mugs of beer) that make you wonder what planet this is taking place on.

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Most of all, Chakiris and Turner’s orphaned, somehow Swiss, stepdaughter (Karin Mossberg, in her only screen role) try to make Turner go insane (or commit suicide) by freaking her out on several acid trips. These are somewhat rewarding scenes, but for the fact that the film-makers seem to have the mistaken idea that the only emotion produced on an LSD high is terror. If that were true, who on earth would anyone ever do it recreationally?

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As in all such movies, the best scene is the party scene at the go-go club, featuring a dude with a target drawn on his face, and a woman who’s thing is to impersonate a large bumble bee.

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The plan to help Ms. Turner regain her sanity is the most melodramatic, unrealistic and ironically way-out of all.

To find out more about the squares of old time show bizconsult 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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And don’t miss 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Jackie Gleason: The Great One

Posted in BROOKLYN, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jackie Gleason, Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of The Great One, Mr. Jackie Gleason. The fact that that title was bestowed upon him by Orson Welles will give some indication of how highly his artistry was regarded in some quarters during his life.

My appreciation for him took many years to blossom. As a kid I found Ralph Kramden too scary to be funny; I didn’t dig The Honeymooners at all. “To the moon, Alice” is a bit much for me; I came from a home where the frustrated working slob often made good on such threats, and the results didn’t resemble humor. And let’s face it — Gleason, with those pop-eyes, the raspy voice and the mountainous girth, is a scary-looking dude.

But neither Jackie nor Ralph are like that, you eventually learn. No anecdotes of real life domestic violence mar Gleason’s biographies (even though he did plenty of scrapping in the streets and pool halls). And Ralph, though frightening in his rages, is ultimately Alice’s vassal, a sort of wayward and blustering child. I still have to regard it as a fairy tale fantasy, of course, but with exposure to the show, Gleason’s gifts become apparent, his comic timing, his give-and-take with the other performers, the 3 dimensional shadings of the character, and his abilities as a dramatic actor. And a little research reveals this is only the tip of the ice berg: there were his dramatic performance in films, and his incredible work in television variety: he was a hilarious host, a top flight sketch comedian, and even a terrific straight man. He also loved music (he wrote the memorable Honeymooners theme).

Born this day in 1916, he grew up in Bushwick (memories of which informed the set of The Honeymooners). And now that I think of it, the apartments of my friends who live in Bushwick today look pretty much the same. He started out attending shows at his local vaudeville theatre (where he would later host the amateur night) and when vaudeville petered out, began to work in nightclubs and burlesque (sidelining as a boxer and a bar bouncer when he couldnt get gigs). His first shot at films in the early forties went nowhere, but things gradually picked up with high profile gigs at Slapsie Maxies, a tour with Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, several Broadway shows and a season substituting for William Bendix on the television version of the popular radio show The Life of Riley (1949-50).

He was the centerpiece of several tv variety shows in the 50s and 60s, in which (much like Red Skelton) he essayed a wide variety of popular characters: Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender, and others. The Honeymooners also began as a series of short sketches on his variety shows (and later returned to that format in the years following its single season as a half-hour sit com.) He got some juicy prestige roles in dramatic films in the early 60s (The Hustler, Requiem for a Heavyweight), some way-out roles in the late sixties (Skidoo, Don’t Drink the Water) and finally got his long sought after movie star status in old age, starting with Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. His last role was Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks in 1986, the year before he died.

Perhaps nothing in his remarkable life compares to the occasion in 1973 when (Gleason claimed) President Richard M. Nixon took him to a special morgue beneath the White House and showed him the bodies of several dead space aliens. “And away we go”,  indeed.

Here he is as the Loudmouth Charlie Bratton in a clip with Art Carney:

To find out more about  the history of variety entertainmentconsult 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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And don’t miss my new 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

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