Archive for the Comedy Teams Category

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Comedies of Wheeler and Woolsey

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by travsd

For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SEVEN of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), Peach O’Reno (1931), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.

At any rate, herewith their films:
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Rio Rita (1929)

The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles

The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.”  It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected  her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles).  Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.

Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande.  Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.

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The Cuckoos (1930)

Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.

The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).

Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and  the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.dixiana-lobbycard

Dixiana (1930)

Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of travelling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description .

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.

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Everything’s Rosie (1931)

One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman.  Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.

Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version.  Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter CatlettGeorge Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment.  But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.

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Cracked Nuts (1931)

Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in trhe depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.

The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler falls in love with debutante Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her mother (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!

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Caught Plastered (1931)

In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)

An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts. 

Peach O’Reno (1931)

I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.

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Girl Crazy (1932)

The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)

In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

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So This is Africa (1933)

Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.)  A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.

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Diplomaniacs (1933)

This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel number! Contains a few likable songs.  Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).

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Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!

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Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

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Kentucky Kernels (1934)

This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat

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The Nitwits (1935)

Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and  the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit.  Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…

Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:

The Rainmakers (1935)

Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.

Silly Billies (1936)

A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists!

Mummy’s Boys (1936)

A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!

On Again-Off Again (1937)

A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.

High Flyers (1937)

The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W plays a couple of phony pilot who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey.

There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.

To learn more about 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 etc. 

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. 

R.I.P. Mrs. Zeppo

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Marx Brothers, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

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My internet has been out all day or else I would have posted this much earlier. We learned today that the lady best known as Barbara Sinatra died today at age 90 — although to Marx Brothers’  fans she will also be Mrs. Zeppo.  Frank Sinatra was her third husband; Zeppo Marx  was her second. She was born Barbara Blakely. Prior to marrying Zeppo in 1959, she had been a Las Vegas showgirl and a model, and had married and divorced a beauty pageant executive. According to her autobiography, Zeppo was jealous, possessive and rough with her. She started seeing Sinatra on the sly. She divorced Zeppo in 1973 and married Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1976. But the trio remained friendly and Barbara helped Zeppo through the ordeal of fighting the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1979. With the recent passing of Miriam Marx we now have even fewer living links to the 20th century’s greatest comedy team. She died of natural causes.

Of Curly Joe and the Three Stooges’ Final Phase

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by travsd

Let this be a law of criticism: context is key to appreciation. When you don’t have enough information to make a proper evaluation, your ability to judge is incomplete. And yet in our arrogance, most humans by default will assume they have sufficient knowledge to be the arbiters of all that goes on around them. In a certain sense, they have to; it is the only way to navigate the world we live in. But it is also true that most of us, were we to take the attitude of Socrates, might admit that we could know more — that we don’t know enough. America has become a kind of nightmare scenario in that regard. Awash in the information revolution, we are surrounded by armchair experts on science, politics, religion and culture. But few, maybe none, know as much as they think they do. Far from owning up to their own ignorance, most will contend that they know everything. I am no better or worse than the people around me in that regard.

And, so — ha ha ha! — I have been slow in developing an appreciation for Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita (Joseph Wardell, 1909-1993). DeRita, of course, was the “Sixth Stooge”, or put another way, the Fourth “Third Stooge”, the last man to join Moe Howard and Larry Fine in the long-running comedy team known as the Three Stooges. DeRita, to put it mildly, gets little respect, insofar as anyone thinks of him at all. When I was a kid, I’m sure I had the prevailing opinion on the team. The golden line-up was the version that included Curly Howard as the third member, an iteration that encompassed the team’s first dozen years making shorts for Columbia, 1934-46. When their shorts turned up on television from the later years, ones that featured Shemp Howard or Joe Besser in the third spot, we howled in horror and disappointment, as though it were a betrayal or swindle of some sort. It was because we loved Curly so much — and because we didn’t know enough. As an adult I learned a lot more about both Shemp and Besser, I saw them in other movies (and in Besser’s case, tv shows), and I read about them, and I learned to appreciate their own qualities and could see what they were bringing, or attempting to bring, to the work. And now I see the people who dismiss Shemp or Besser as newbies, dilettantes in the realm of Stoogedom.

See? They’re ARTISTS!

But I never bothered to make that effort with Joe DeRita. Why? I dunno. As with the other two, I guess I assumed that I knew everything. I had seen all the late career Three Stooges features on tv as a kid, so I knew his work, and found it bland and unamusing by contrast with his predecessors. And there was a palpable lameness about calling him “Curly Joe”. It just made him seem like a stand-in, one who wasn’t bringing much to the table. But having spent some time reacquainting myself with his work, and learning some new things about him, I’ll never dismiss him out of hand again. I simply didn’t have the tools to see him properly before.

Interestingly, like Abbott and Costello, DeRita came out of burlesque. This gave him a different, but similar background to his fellow Stooges. What truly opened my eyes (and I’m sure this is true of others) is the fact that DeRita had made four starring solo shorts for Columbia in 1946 and 1947, The Good Bad Egg, Wedlock Deadlock, Slappily Married, and Jitter Bughouse. These are not masterpieces, in fact they are all remakes of previous Columbia shorts, and so steeped in the trademark Jules White style that the experience is very much like watching a Three Stooges short. In fact the supporting players are often the same people (Vernon Dent, Emil Sitka, Christine McIntyre). But what makes the films valuable is you can see what DeRita was really like when not shoe-horned into the team. He has his own style, a bit more Lou Costello than Stooges-like. He’s a snazzy dresser, and he has a slick mane of hair, greased up in the 40s style. Sometimes he even wears a derby like Costello. And you get to see a bunch of his skills, which include dancing and some acrobatic slapstick. His character is somewhat ill-defined. Pushy? Mild-mannered? He seems to see-saw between both. They couldn’t figure out to do with him and so he was released after only four shorts. But DeRita was skilled enough that he was approached in 1946 to be the replacement for Curly. He demurred because he wanted to do his own thing.

By the late ’50s things changed. The burlesque circuits were dead, and the Three Stooges were hot again due to their exposure on television. When DeRita was approached this time to replace the departing Joe Besser, it was a no-brainer: he’d take it, no matter what the compromises were. And they were pretty substantial. He ended up shaving off all his hair, and had to change his name to Curly Joe. Basically, he was being made over into another performer, but in sort of a half-assed way. No one could actually replace Curly Howard, or even satisfactorily imitate him. So a sort of third way was pursued, one that only had to be sophisticated enough to satisfy children, for that was to be the team’s new audience.

So now they do fairy tales yet

 

Granted, kids (and child-like adults) had always been the Three Stooges core audience. But by the late 1950s, movie studios were becoming scientific about these things, with (I think) unfortunate results. They began to bear down and target specific markets. Another good example of this is Walt Disney. If you watch his cartoons from the 30s and 40s, most of them are laugh-out-loud funny, just like those of Warner Brothers or other studios. They were for general audiences. In the 50s, he and his company decided to target children and families, and all the teeth and sophistication were ironed out of the Disney product. This identical thing happened with the Stooges. It is also interesting to observe the fact that this new incarnation of the Stooges was born just as Abbott and Costello, who had also evolved into a kiddie act, had left the scene. Originally from burlesque, Abbott aand Costello had started out making comedies for general audiences, but the product devolved into B movie product strictly for kid’s matinees. The last Abbott and Costello comedy had been made in 1956. Costello made one solo comedy in 1959 before being felled by a heart attack. So now there was a market void, and the Three Stooges jumped in to fill it. The strategizing couldn’t have been any better if it were conscious and it probably was. I’d be hard put to believe a great deal of thought wasn’t put into the conception of the vehicles. After all, Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) and The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) do seem an awful like Abbott and Costello go to Mars (1953), and Snow White and The Three Stooges (1961) isn’t VERY far away from Abbott and Costello’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1952). One MIGHT say that The Outlaws is Coming borrows from Abbott and Costello’s comedy westerns — except for the fact that the Stooges had already made countless comedy westerns of their own as shorts. The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962) seems to hearken further back for something to rip off: the concept bears more than a passing resemblance to Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals. Which leaves The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963), an obvious parody of Mike Todd’s 1956 movie of the Jules Verne classic.

Like I said, I watched all these movies on tv as a kid, but really hadn’t looked at them in many decades, because why wouldja? But they played Have Rocket, Will Travel on TCM a few months back and out of curiosity (and because I’m supposed to know about these things) I watched it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it (or that I enjoyed it at all). “Less violence”, I found, didn’t translate into NO violence. There are still some of the trademark face slaps and eye gouges in the equation. A new element is the boring romantic sub-plots, also borrowed from Abbott and Costello comedies, but you have to suffer through that in a lot of movies. There are still plenty of laughs and weirdness to be had.

I also watched some of The New Three Stooges cartoons (1965-66) in recent years and found them diverting in a campy sort of way, though the animation couldn’t be cruder. Their 1970 tv pilot Kook’s Tour was a sad ending to a long career though.

Ironically if DeRita had joined the team in 1946 when Jules White first asked him, he might have been seen in another light today, much as we now see Shemp or Besser, for his own shorts were as gritty and lowdown as the Stooges product of the ’40s, and DeRita wouldn’t have had to become the huggable stuffed animal he is made to be in the features of the 1960s.  But now at least we can see that.

For more on the origins of the Three Stooges go here.

For more on slapstick comedy film history, including the work of The Three Stooges, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

R.I.P. Miriam Marx (Groucho’s Daughter)

Posted in Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, OBITS with tags , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

Just got word from the Marxian grapevine that Groucho’s daughter Miriam Marx Allen passed away yesterday at age 90. She was one of the last links to the Marx Brothers’ glory days. When Miriam was born in 1927 The Cocoanuts was on Broadway, and the family was still based in New York. When the team retired from films (the first time) after The Big Store she was only 14.

Like her mom Ruth Johnson, who’d also performed with the family act, Miriam sadly developed an alcohol problem, and had a troubled relationship with her famous father. Her book Love Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam, was first published in 1992.

Miriam’s older brother Arthur, author and playwright, passed away in 2011. She is survived by her half-sister Melinda, 20 years her junior, another link with the storied Marxian past.

Three Cheers for “Four of the Three Musketeers”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.

The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.

As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of.  Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.

And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.

Special thanks to Noah Diamond. 

Did the Code Hurt the Marx Brothers?

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2017 by travsd

“I sure wish these bean counters would let us be funny again!”

The origin of this post: A few days ago someone on social media asserted with enormous confidence, that “the Code hurt the Marx Brothers” (meaning, if you’re new to such things, that the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which began to be strictly enforced in 1934, was what damaged the team’s later films.) I had never looked at the question in quite that way before, and I think most people who think about it don’t.

Thanks to TCM and the Film Forum, I became something of an aficionado of pre-Code films. There are many genres that were deeply affected when the Code started to be applied more severely. Horror became less gory and gruesome. Gangster movies became less crude and violent. Melodramas, which were frequently about pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, lost about 3/4 of the kinds of stories they could tell. Musicals with chorus girls could no longer show near-nudity. But, I hadn’t really considered the Marx Brothers’s comedies in this light.

Typically, the blame for the Marx Brothers’ descent is laid at the feet of the studio, MGM, which is where the team started making movies in 1935 after parting ways with their previous studio, Paramount. The coincidence in timing, among other factors, makes it not-so-easy to sort out. Compare the Marx Brothers, for example, with someone like Mae West, who was CLEARLY hurt by the Code, and may be the most obvious example of a star who was. With her, it’s easy to identify. Her act clearly revolved around sexual naughtiness; the documentary record illustrates her struggles to maintain her vision once the Code went into effect; and the change in the tone and quality of her films after the Code is easy to spot. And Mae remained with the same studio, Paramount, the entire time, so it was not a question of changing horses in midstream.

With the Marx Brothers, it is muddier. As with many comedians, (lecherous) sexuality is a strand in their comedy, but it is not the only one or even necessarily a predominating one.  People often attempt to oversimplify them in this fashion, but it won’t do.  The two words — invariably — that occur to me whenever I think of the Marx Brothers are “anarchy” and “crazy”. Nonsense, surrealism. These qualities needn’t necessarily be affected by the prudish restrictions of a moral code, although it is likely that they will.

Another complicating factor is the fact that it wasn’t all skittles and beer PRIOR to the tightening of Code enforcement in 1934. The Code had been in place since 1930, so there was already a loose observance of it under way. So when, for example The Cocoanuts. and Animal Crackers were adapted from stage to screen, cuts and changes were made by Paramount to accommodate the Code. Beyond this, state and municipal local governments had their own local censorship authorities, so the Marx Brothers’ pre-code films were often already being cut prior to screening.

Still: I think there may be something to the claim that the Code was a factor after 1934, or at least it’s worth considering. So over the weekend I zipped through the films for the zillionth time with an eye to this question. Ultimately I realized, a complete, thorough, detailed survey is a much bigger job than I’m prepared (or inclined) to take on. It’s some scholar’s Ph.D. dissertation waiting to happen — that is, if it hasn’t already been written. But looked at cursorily, loosely, I think I managed to get a good feel for the kinds of things that are missing from the films after Duck Soup.

Stolen silverware cascading from Harpo’s coat in “Animal Crackers”. After the code, his character would need to go to jail for that, learn his lesson, and start an orphanage for deaf-mute juvenile pickpockets

The Code recommends care in depicting “theft” and avoiding “sympathy for criminals”. Presumably because of this, Harpo and Chico change drastically after the Code. Especially in the early pictures, the pair had been depicted as compulsive, shameless thieves and pickpockets. They rob the money out of the cash register in The Cocoanuts. Harpo lifts personal items off of unsuspecting victims so often it’s almost like his signature, part of the rich fabric of the human interaction in the films. He is Dickensian in this regard. This is missing from both characters in the MGM films or at least both dramatically reduced and justified. In the MGM films, the occasional swindle occurs, but usually against Groucho, or it’s done by the brothers to somehow help the hero and the ingenue. At worst, they skip hotel bills, and that sort of thing. But they are not forever swiping things without consequences as in the earlier films.

Similarly, another recurring motif that vanishes after the Code is the recurring spectacle of Harpo chasing women. “Rape” is proscribed by the Code and though most of us would never describe what Harpo will do when he catches the girl as “rape” (I picture a hug, a Fox Trot, and the kind of kiss you might receive from an affectionate St. Bernard), we are dealing with the bane of all comedians: literal minded people. Pedants and bureaucrats. Even the suggestion of something untoward is gone. Harpo chasing down women is gone.

“Perversion” is also verboten, again ruling out Harpo material: like that strange scene in Animal Crackers where Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) first suggestively points out that Harpo “loves a horse” and tells him “I like little boys like you” and then proceeds to put the moves on him despite the fact that he has told her that he is “Five years old”. And then there’s that scene in Duck Soup, where the shoes at the foot of the bed suggest that not only has Harpo gone to bed with a woman he has just met (forbidden) but also the horse he has been riding (perverted!) What would THIS Harpo have been about if we had encountered him in A Day at the Races? The movie has 50 horses in it!

Groucho, the most verbal of the team, is also much affected. He makes suggestive jokes constantly in the first five movies, within the larger context of his nonsensical jokes. One that had been filmed but didn’t make it to theatres at the time (though it has been recently restored), is the line from his opening song: “I think I’ll try and make her.” But a couple of very suggestive lines remained in that film, as when he refers to Margaret Dumont’s “magnificent chest” and when he says “we took some the pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed.” This the kind of dialogue he would never get to say after the advent of strict Code enforcement.

Homosexuality was also considered a “perversion” at the time; and depictions or suggestions of it in Hollywood films decline sharply after 1934. Some of Groucho’s lines and coy come-ons with the gangster Alike Briggs in Monkey Business push that line for comedic purposes; you don’t see him doing that kind of thing in the MGM era; nor do you see him imitating a cat in heat as he also does in Monkey Business. 

Surely this was Zeppo’s favorite movie

Situations that are by definition Pre-Code, not to be found later: everything to do with Thelma Todd! The College Widow who romances (and then marries) all four brothers simultaneously in Horse Feathers! The gun moll who frolics in and around her bed and closet with Groucho in Monkey Business while her husband is out of the room. In both movies she never seems to be wearing anything more than a slip. Rachel Torres performs a similar function in Duck Soup, although to a lesser degree. Vamp characters like Todd and Torres for Groucho and His brothers to chase and leer at are missing (for the most part) from the MGM films. Things are much more wholesome.

“Sedition” is another forbidden topic — Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are strongest in this quality, in both the spoken lines and the musical numbers. “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” he sings in the first film. In the second film he sings blithely about getting his share of political graft. The studios tried not to imply that politicians and officials took graft when the Code was enforced, or at least, when they did, the characters were duly  sent to jail.

Some of these changes may have been a by-product of MGM’s strict adherence to storytelling principles. Or else they were imposed by the Hays Office. Personally, I think the culprit was left-handed moths. Or else it was the Code — and two pair of pants! Groucho gives us more than a hint of whom he blames in At the Circus, “There must be some way I can get that money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!” It’s a funny line, but back in the day there’d have been no need for a line — he just would have gone ahead and been offensive.

For more on comedy film history please check out 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

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