Archive for the Comedy Teams Category

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

6a00d8341cb34753ef0147e309df58970b-800wi

The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

220px-Shoulder_Arms

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

Shoulder_Arms

As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

hqdefault

Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

tumblr_mk3so8ScBj1rb5nc0o1_1280

A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

wc_better_ole_styleC_LB00971_L

The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

 Soldier_Man

Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

imgres

A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

DOUGHBOYS

Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

Poster - Half Shot at Sunrise_01

Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey 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.

Pack_Up_Your_Troubles_LC

Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy‘s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

5622431046_efb4a92566_z

Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

TheGreatDictator_1

The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

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

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

The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by travsd

Time once again to celebrate the birthday of Leonard “Chico” Marx (1887-1961). Today seems to me an appropriate time to float a notion I came up with the other day, a way of looking at the Marx Brothers films of the much-maligned MGM period (1935-1941.)

I hasten to point out that in no sense do I claim the ideas I am submitting are a real thing. They constitute a theory, not a thesis. It may be a useful lens for trying to understand these somewhat unfathomable years, when the team seemed to jettison the essence of what had defined their characters and comedy for most of their careers (around a quarter of a century) and to change into altered personas in new kinds of vehicles that didn’t suit them as well.

We begin with the observation that a shift in cultural taste was occurring in the late 1930s. Whether the shift was initiated by audiences or producers, or both in tandem, is unknown and maybe unknowable, but what we observe across the popular arts (movies, theatre, pop songwriting), is a movement away from the aesthetics of vaudeville (formal, stylized, artificial, surreal) and closer towards realism (literal, logical, comprehensible). I see several possible factors at play: a) the death of the big time vaudeville circuits in the early 1930s; b) the advent of talking pictures — the most accurate method of recording reality in history — in 1927; and c) the advent of radio, a medium that also exposed audiences to reality, in the form of extemporized performance.

Tastes seem to become more prosaic and less “smart”. Fantasia, clown make-up, verbal wordplay pass from the scene, to be replaced with plausibility and relatability. If Clark and McCullough and Wheeler and Woolsey represent the early ’30s, Bob Hope is the face of the end of the decade. He makes wisecracks but they are not TOO crazy. He’s a little goofy but not TOO strange-looking or acting. At the same time, there appears to be a trend away from the verbal, word-based joke (Burns and Allen) to those which de-emphasize The Word and replace it with, for lack of a better word, Funny Faces (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello). Settings for stories become less whimsical (Klopstokia) and more quotidian (a night club).

Amidst this time of transition, the Marx Brothers began the second phase of their movie career. The earlier, Paramount films (1929-1933) stuck to a formula consonant with their vaudeville and Broadway successes, highly surreal in character, and dominated by Groucho and Harpo. In 1935, through the influence of Chico, they signed with MGM, whose production head Irving Thalberg preferred to stress the importance of story. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that the zeitgeist seemed to overwhelm the team’s natural voice. And this is what I am calling “the Chico Period”. By using that term, I don’t mean that Chico is now suddenly the star of these pictures (A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West and The Big Store). Far from it. It’s that the new settings and style are most harmonious with, less catastrophic to, Chico’s character. In fact, in certain ways, at certain times, he comes out ahead, although the gains are brief and full advantage is never made of his being better suited to the changing milieu than his brothers.

One of these guys looks relatively real, and it’s not the one in the wig or the one with the greasepaint mustache

Granted there were deleterious changes to Chico’s character as well. Gone now were the avalanche of puns and misunderstandings derived from his traditional vaudeville dialect humor, which had been funny precisely because they were an implausible stretch. The accent remained, but his joke material now consisted mostly of “stupidity” and simple-minded malapropisms. But unlike Groucho, for example, his status does not fall. Groucho had been the boss or the guest of honor in the first five movies. In the MGM ones he tumbles down to Chico’s plane (in A Night at the Opera, quite literally — he is thrown down some stairs). Groucho had always been screwy, illegitimate and manipulative, but never seedy or low-rent. Chico had ALWAYS been seedy and low-rent. Unless you’re talking about mathematical computation, Chico is not the high brow of the Marx Brothers. These dumbed down new Marx Brothers movies seem to fit him better than the other two. A racetrack, dodging a hotel bill, these are Chico places and predicaments. In A Night at the Opera and The Big Store he is made to have a relationship to the ACTUAL Italy, an unprecedented amount of realism for a Marx Bros. picture, no matter how cockamamie. This is CHICO’s world. So much so that in A Day at the Races, At the Circus and Go West Chico actually bests Groucho in several swindles and other encounters. In At the Circus, he’s actually the guy who hires Groucho — THAT is the new dynamic.  And though Harpo is by far the most entertaining, the least compromised, in these later films he also doesn’t quite BELONG there. For better or worse, Chico belongs there.

Say, maybe it IS a fantasy — in real life, Chico would NEVER turn his back to the betting counter!

After the team broke up the first time (1941), Chico fronted his own big band, proving again that he was very in tune with the times. It was hip to be a musician in the ’40s. But his character was beginning to outlive its welcome, what with ACTUAL Italians like Lou Costello, Dean Martin, Tony Pastor (the singer), Vito Scotti, et al becoming popular on the radio and on movie screens. And at last we again reach a point where Groucho makes out better than Chico. After all, Groucho could grow a real mustache. Chico couldn’t become a real Italian.

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

At any rate, I offer this up merely as a way of looking at the team’s misguided last studio films. Nothing will make them less terrible, but they may possibly be made less inexplicable.

 

Tomorrow on TCM: Wheeler and Woolsey in “Cockeyed Cavaliers”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2017 by travsd

cv200806

Tomorrow at 7:30am (EST), Turner Classic Movies will show the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy 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. 

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Tonight on TCM: Classic Prison Comedies

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by travsd

All month long, TCM is devoting Tuesday nights to prison films. Tonight (actually the wee hours of tomorrow) they’ll have these three “comedy classics” with jailhouse settings.

mv5bywy3owu5mmitmweyzi00zmm4lwi1njetm2e4zgmzmzllmjkzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndy3mzu2mdm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_

2:45am (EST): Jail Busters (1955)

The Bowery Boys. Not for the first time, the boys purposefully commit a crime so they can go undercover in jail to get the goods on a gang of crooks who are in there. It is a stupid plan of course! The guy who was supposed to have arranged everything (Lyle Talbot) is crooked himself and hangs the boys out to dry. Percy Helton plays the warden!

L&H_Pardon_Us_1931

4:00am (EST): Pardon Us (1931)

Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length film Pardon Us (1931), directed by James Parrott. The title is a joke—it’s a prison comedy. Get it? Pardon us? Watching this film, I’d not be a bit surprised to learn it was a major influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art the Thou? (Yes, yes, Sullivan’s Travels but also this). I think this movie is easily one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features.

The fact that the pair are incarcerated is a joint responsibility. The movie starts out with them buying ingredients for beer. It’s Ollie who gets the bright idea of selling their surplus homebrew, thus the crime is at his instigation. Later however it is Stanley who tries to sell some to a policeman (he thinks the uniform was that of a streetcar conductor).

A major theme throughout the film is Stanley’s bad tooth, which for some unnatural reason causes him to make a raspberry sound when he speaks, triggering all manner of trouble for the pair. There isn’t much of a plot, but this tooth noise, like a musical motif waves through the film and drives most of the action. This noise antagonizes guards, the warden, and the bull goose of their cell, who later respects him for it. They become involved in an escape plan; everyone gets caught right away but them/ They blend in with a bunch of black field hands on a cotton plantation by putting on blackface. Ollie even sings a minstrel song that Stan dances to. (It’s unfortunate to modern eyes, but there it is). In a scene of masterful tension, the warden’s car breaks down right where they’re standing, obligating the boys to fix the vehicle. They almost make it through the episode — until Stan’s tooth noise blows their cover. Later, back in prison, Stanley accidentally foils another prison break due to his mishaps with a tommy gun, and the boys are about to get an early release when…

10839799_det

5:00am (EST) Hold ’em Jail (1932) 

Wheeler and Woolsey . 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!

For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

Films of Fields #25: Six of a Kind

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by travsd

s-l300

We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

Six of a Kind (1934), directed by Leo McCarey, captures a pivotal moment in W.C. Fields’ career; the moment just before he became a star of his own feature-length talkies. In Six of a Kind and previous Paramount sound films, he was merely a member of a comic ensemble, despite having been at the center of silents and sound shorts in the past. But then and now, the part of Six of a Kind everyone remembers is Fields’ role — despite the fact that of the titular six, his is one of the smaller parts. In the film, Charlie Ruggles plays a mild mannered bank employee who is planning a second honeymoon with his bossy wife (Mary Boland). To save expenses on their corss-country motorcar trip, the wife advertises for passengers — who turn out to be George Burns, Gracie Allen and a Great Dane. The bulk of the film concerns the misadventures of this quartet and their canine antagonist. Only towards the end do they stop off in a western town where they encounter a Sheriff named “Honest John” (Fields) and his lady consort, an innkeep (Alison Skipworth, with whom he is paired here for the third and final time). The part of the film everyone remembers is the resurrection of Fields’ pool routine, where he does everything but hit a ball while he attempts to tell an onlooker, through a long and winding story, how he came to be called “Honest John”. Along the way, there is some scintilla of a plot involving a suitcase of stolen money, but one scarcely notices that amongst all the fol de rol. It’s just an excuse to wrap the picture up with a little bang-bang, shoot-shoot, and just in the nick of time, at just over an hour’s running time.

 

Last Night’s “Marx Brothers on Broadway” Program

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on December 1, 2016 by travsd

marx-bros-248x300

A good time was had by all last night at Noah Diamond’s “Marx Brothers on Broadway” talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, sponsored by Zelda Magazine. The capacity crowd was full of hard-core Marxian fans. The reason I know? This was far from a talk for beginners: this was about a lesser known phase of the comedy team’s career, and the crowd was fully engaged, laughed at the right parts, and asked knowledgeable questions. I always review the audience, and this one got an A grade.
img_2008

Don Spiro, publisher and editor of Zelda, introduced the program:

img_2011

Then came Noah:

img_2017

Noah’s talk knocked my socks off. Apart from the content, it may have been the best, most artful and animated Powerpoint presentation I’ve ever seen. But the talk itself was fascinating, taking us all the way from the Marx Brothers later vaudeville days when they were expanding to tab musicals (and outgrowing them), through their three Broadway smashes, I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. He spoke of the evolution of the team and their familiar characters and exploded many of the famous myths about them (e.g., the misrepresentation of Margaret Dumont as a clueless woman who didn’t get the Marxes’ humor, and the idea that the New York critics had never heard of the Marx Brothers until their Broadway debut). There was a humorous explication of the lyrics of “The Monkey Doodle Doo”. And, because yesterday happened to be the anniversary of Zeppo’s death, there was a moment of respectful contemplation of the much-maligned Marx, which initially provoked a guffaw, but turned out to be quite moving. He also did a purposely (and hilariously) mangled version of the usual capsule version of their history — a kind of inside joke for long time fans of the team.

img_2019

Other special treats: video of the Napoleon scene from the recent revival of I’ll Say She Is, and performances of two scenes from the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers which were cut from their movie versions, with Noah as Groucho of course, Matt Roper as Chico, Matt Walters as Zeppo, with Melody Jane and Kathy Biehl. Another special treat was a recorded rendition of the Animal Crackers song “Four of the Three Musketeers”, one of the great Marxian lost treasures. This was just the top of the iceberg really. Noah Diamond works very hard.

img_2027

Greeting the fans, and (gasp!) signing autographs!

img_2025

Two hard core classic comedy buffs — funnyman Dave Konig and actor director Allan Lewis Rickman

img_2030

A beaming Biehl

img_2031

Walters with Sarah Lahue, ISSI SM.

Author and Marxfest founder Kevin Fitzpatrick with the one and only Melody Jane

Author and Marxfest founder Kevin Fitzpatrick with the one and only Melody Jane

This talk was part of a regular series at the Morbid Anatomy Museum sponsored by Zelda. The next one is December 12, and the speaker will be my humble self, and my text will be “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age“. I hope you can attend! Stay tuned!

Silent Partners: Other Harpos

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2016 by travsd
9f1e54e77aad2c05c70c66e403e6c081

Harpo with Lucille Ball from the famous “I Love Lucy” episode, which is absolutely the first place I ever saw him

Today is Harpo Marx’s birthday (for more on the great silent clown, see my biographical post on the Marx Brothers). Today’s post has been germinating for a long time. It grew out of lots of contemplation I did during Marxfest and the Fringe Production of I’ll Say She Is. It occurred to me that he was the most original of the Marx Brothers. I think his grandfather, a magician, may have been an influence, but I’ve never come across mention of others — specific performers he watched and emulated in his earliest years. But I did think of a very few contemporaries who come kind of close to him in conception, and a few characters who came later who echo in some way the Harpo idea (just click on link for more information):

dchasen

Dave Chasen

Before starting his famous Hollywood restaurant, Dave Chasen was the stooge to vaudeville and Broadway clown/comedian Joe Cook. Chasen wasn’t silent, he limited himself to a few phrases, uttered exuberantly in his thick Russian accent. But something about his personality reminds me the most of Harpo. He is “the cheerful idiot”, with a smile and a wave. You can see him do his thing in both of Cook’s features, Rain or Shine (1930) and Arizona Mahoney (1936).

paul-mccullough-05

Paul McCullough

Clark and McCullough were the vaudeville and screen team who came closest in conception to the Marx Brothers: surreal, grotesque, clown-like and even a little scary. Unlike the Marx Bros. or Dave Chasen, there was nothing “ethnic” about them — they were a couple of midwestern kids whose earliest days were spent in the circus and burlesque. The cigar smoking, leering and wisecracking Clark was most similar to Groucho; McCullough was his stooge. Like Chasen, he wasn’t silent per se, but he rarely spoke, and usually just made a lot of idiotic faces and laughed his raspy laugh. He also always seemed to wear very large coats which seemed to swallow him up, another trait I associate with Harpo. Clark and McCullough made many comedy shorts for RKO in the early ’30s. You can catch some of them on Youtube.

fred-sanborn-pictures

Fred Sanborn

Stage and screen comedian Ted Healy employed many stooges over the years beyond the three who became famous for their Columbia comedy shorts. Fred Sanborn appeared in vaudeville and Broadway revues with Healy and the others, playing a character who was more like Chaplin than Harpo. He was more silent than Chasen or McCullough. We never heard him utter a sound. But he was not a mute; he would just whisper into the other character’s ears. Unlike Harpo, Chasen or McCullough he also wasn’t idiotic or crazy — more winsome and poetic. You can see him with Healy and the Three Stooges in their 1930 vehicle Soup to Nuts. He left the act shortly after that film to focus on music.

gideon

Gideon the Cat

This character in the 1940 Disney film Pinnochio is mute, apart from three hiccups voiced by Mel Blanc. (His partner, the fox Honest John was portrayed by Walter Catlett)  The character is very much in the tradition of the idiotic, mute stooge, and reminds me more of McCullough perhaps more than some of the others.

snorky

Snork

This character from the Sid and Marty Krofft children’s  show The Banana Splits (1968-1970), was the silent member of the psychedelically costumed quartet. The other three were played by popular voice-over actors Paul Winchell, Daws Butler and Allan Melvin). Snork was a hairy elephant whose “voice” was a bicycle horn (not unlike Harpo’s taxi horn).

teller

Teller

This guy — am I right? The “smaller, quieter half” of comedy/magic duo Penn and Teller is unique among stage mutes by not being stupid, broad, or crazy. Instead, he is cool, poised, sleek and intelligent — in fact, in the act he often seems to be the brains of the duo. He strikes me as more in the tradition of Buster Keaton, his silence an effect of economy and stripping-down. It’s almost as if he can’t be bothered to talk, or perhaps he might well decide to talk some day if there were ever anything worth saying, and so far there hasn’t been.

If you’ve thoughts about other similar silent partners in a talking universe, I’d be interested to hear!

For more on silent comedians 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

%d bloggers like this: