Archive for the Abbott and Costello Category

Sunday at Film Forum: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy with tags , , on January 27, 2017 by travsd

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This Sunday (January 29) at 11am,  Film Forum will be screening that purported classic Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). 

The title of the film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie. But it’s highly appropriate kid fodder, innocent in spirit, and a welcome antidote to the horrors of our times.

And best of all? Our favorite Lou Costello impersonator Bob Greenberg will be on hand, along with his partner Joe Bev as Abbott, to cut up a little before the movie. Sounds like a good time to me. Tickets and info are here. 

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Tomorrow at Film Forum: Abbott and Costello in “Hold That Ghost”

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , on October 3, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow at 11am, as part of their Film Forum Jr. series, the Film Forum in New York will be showing the Abbott and Costello  comedy Hold That Ghost (1941)

This is the first of A & C’s many spook comedies, a sub-genre much in vogue at the time, and one of the team’s few (maybe the only one?) that doesn’t plug into a pre-existing Universal Pictures horror franchise. The antics aren’t worlds away from the Three Stooges. For musical diversion they are re-united with the popular Andrews Sisters, and Ted Lewis and his band are also on deck. And a supporting cast that includes a very funny Joan Davis, Shemp HowardRichard Carlson, and Mischa Auer. 

The boys are substitute waiters at a nightclub, who are fired when Costello accidentally throws some chicken in the boss’s face. Then they get a job at a filling station and somehow wind up in a gangster’s car as he flees from police. The gangster is shot and dies, but he scribbles out a will first, bequeathing an old hotel to them for helping with the getaway (and just to spite his double-crossing colleagues). Unfortunately the lawyer who executes the will works for a rival gangster and assigns a henchman to go with them to the hotel. Joan Davis is quite funny as a radio personality who comes along for some reason. Shemp plays a soda jerk. An exceedingly dull romantic couple comes along, as well.  A terrible thunder storm forces them all to stay in the apparently haunted hotel, which trns out to have been an old bootlegger’s roadhouse. And then….and endless repetition of one or another seeing something scary, screaming and running to tell the others. This happens about 70 times and then some police show up and nab the crooks.

If it’s still raining tomorrow, this is a perfect thing to do with the kids. Tickets and info here. 

Abbott and Costello: The Horror Comedies

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by travsd

Today being the birthday of Bud Abbott AND the early days of the Halloween season today we thought we’d do a little post on the horror comedies of Abbott and Costello. And, no, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is not a horror comedy, it’s a science fiction comedy!

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Hold That Ghost (1941)

The first of A & C’s many spook comedies, a sub-genre much in vogue at the time, and one of the team’s few (maybe the only one?) that doesn’t plug into a pre-existing Universal Pictures horror franchise. The antics aren’t worlds away from the Three Stooges. For musical diversion they are re-united with the popular Andrews Sisters, and Ted Lewis and his band are also on deck. And a supporting cast that includes Joan Davis, Shemp HowardRichard Carlson, and Mischa Auer. 

The boys are substitute waiters at a nightclub, who are fired when Costello accidentally throws some chicken in the boss’s face. Then they get a job at a filling station and somehow wind up in a gangster’s car as he flees from police. The gangster is shot and dies, but he scribbles out a will first, bequeathing an old hotel to them for helping with the getaway (and just to spite his double-crossing colleagues). Unfortunately the lawyer who executes the will works for a rival gangster and assigns a henchman to go with them to the hotel. Joan Davis is quite funny as a radio personality who comes along for some reason. Shemp plays a soda jerk. An exceedingly dull romantic couple comes along, as well.  A terrible thunder storm forces them all to stay in the apparently haunted hotel, which trns out to have been an old bootlegger’s roadhouse. And then….and endless repetition of one or another seeing something scary, screaming and running to tell the others. This happens about 70 times and then some police show up and nab the crooks.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Yeah, I know the title card at the beginning the film says Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein [sic, i.e., missing an “and” or ambersand], but you know what? You’re fuckin’ retarded if that’s what you call it. Anybody normal calls it Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein if they bother referring to the film at all. This is the first of the duo’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stoke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

This one gets an honorable mention here, as it is not actually a horror comedy. Technically it belongs to the closely related subgenre, the murder mystery comedy! As you saw above, Karloff was not involved in the making of the previous film. In fact he didn’t even see it, although he did help promote it. His last role as the monster had been a decade earlier in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In this Abbott and Costello comedy, he plays a sinister Swami. The plot is that Lou is falsely accused of murder, and Abbott, a hotel house detective, has to clear him.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Well, they do and they don’t. The title of this film in some ways promises more than it delivers. It doesn’t for example deliver Claude Rains or even his character from the original crop of Invisible Man films. The scientist in this film is one “Dr. Gray”…the uncle of the girl of a boxer who has been falsely accused of murder. It is the boxer who takes the invisibility serum and provides the familiar spectacle, sometimes rendered as a guy in bandages and sunglasses, sometimes as floating objects. Abbott and Costello play private detectives who help the boxer clear his name. Lou gets scared a lot, and Bud says things like “Why, you’re seeing things!” and “It’s all in yer head!” In too many ways to count, the original film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, is much funnier than this movie.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Interestingly, though the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been filmed many times, it was not a story associated with Universal Horror (the classic versions were by Paramount and MGM). While the comedy is the usual repetitive stuff, there are several elements that commend it: its atmospheric Edwardian London setting, the presence of Boris Karloff as Jekyll, and cast members like Sid Fields and Reginald Denny.

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Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Ironically, think this is a much more entertaining mummy movie than all of Universal’s “serious” mummy sequels combined. It contains much more of what I want from a mummy movie, at any rate…an Egyptian setting, tombs, pyramids, guys in pith helmets and of course a somnambulant, dusty, 4,000 year old fellow walking around wrapped in ace bandages. Most of the “legit” sequels turn out to be set in the U.S. for some odd reason (probably expense) and we get far too little onscreen mummy time. The irony is that in my view Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is the best of all the sequels to the original The Mummy. That is, until the reboot. Because of its close association with an actual Universal horror franchise, this is the one that most resembles Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s one of the better ones.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

We give this one honorable mention because the team had split by this stage and Costello appears in it without Abbott. This one is interesting (in the abstract) because it parodies contemporary 50s horror for the first time as opposed to the “classics” of the genre. Costello  plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of a building. I have not yet seen this legendary film, but am dying to. It was released after Costello’s death that year of a heart attack.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other 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

On Straight Men, Comedy Teams and Belated Props for Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by travsd

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What with TCM showing several Abbott and Costello comedies tonight, I thought this might be a logical time to share some thoughts I’d been kicking around about the great movie comedy teams and the role of the straight man.

The genesis of this train of thought was a revelation I had the other day (probably an obvious fact to some of you) about what makes the Abbott and Costello movies unique and a way in which they excel (if perhaps don’t completely succeed). Their films are perhaps the most successful attempts to integrate a certain kind of old-style verbal two-man comedy act into a feature length narrative. This is simultaneously faint praise (when you come right down to it, there were very few other attempts) and high praise (what they attempted was darn nigh impossible.)

When I say the attempts were rare, I mean they were rarer than you think. I am talking about something very specific. There were many kinds of comedy teams in vaudeville and burlesque. One of the most common had its roots in the minstrel show. This was the comedy duo or double act which paired a sillier comic with a straight man or feeder, a guy whose job was to do the set ups for the punchlines delivered by the comic. The original straight man was the Interlocutor in minstrelsy; the End Men were the comics. In the two man act, the straight man became a specialty unto itself. The straight man is like the puppet master, the Power Behind the Throne, a magician who skillfully and selflessly directs the audience’s attention onto the comic, and (truth be known) even cues them when to laugh. Bud Abbott was considered the very best of this species of creature in burlesque. Both vaudeville and burlesque were full of these kind of two man acts, hundreds of them. But very few of them made it to movies. People often lump other comedy teams in with them and speak of them in similar terms, but I think it’s important to make some distinctions so that you can see what’s unique about Abbott and Costello.

Most of the successful and famous comedy teams in films were actually NOT of the type I am describing. Most don’t have a guy who is a simple “feeder”. He is not a straight man in that sense. You might more accurately call him the “straighter man” than the straight man. Both the members of such comedy teams are funny. They have distinct characters, and one of the pair is slightly less silly. But he’s not a feeder. In Laurel and Hardy that person is Oliver Hardy. In Wheeler and Woolsey that person is Bob Woolsey. In Hope and Crosby, that person is Bing. In Carney and Brown (heaven forfend) that person is Wally Brown. With Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, it’s Thelma. And so on, through the years. In Laverne and Shirley, it’s Shirley. Both members of the team have fleshed out, funny characters. They are comic actors in stories, not just joke tellers. Yes, they deliver jokes, but not for their own sake, in a routine. The main thing is the story. Of necessity, one of the pair is slightly straighter, but in no sense is he or she just a feeder.

Integrating into a story a vaudeville team with their pre-established rhythm of pat routines is quite a different thing. Who are these kinds of teams, with this kind of straight man? There were hundreds back in the day, but because of this hurdle, very few made it into movies so you’ll only know a few of them. Jay Brennan of Savoy and Brennan was that kind of straight man. Accompanist Ted Shapiro played the role to Sophie Tucker. Bob Hope was straight man to a Dumb Dora character named Honey Chile (and later on tv to countless comedians). Frank Fay was straight man to his stooge, Patsy Kelly. Ted Healy was straight man to his Three Stooges (and I have a heretical theory that they would have made better movies together if he hadn’t dropped them).

Every ventriloquist plays the straight man to his dummy. Thus Edgar Bergen, in addition to his many other gifts, was one of the great straight men of all time. (NOTE: he’s in many movies. How many does he star in?).

George Burns and Gracie Allen were in films throughout the 1930s, but ALWAYS as parts of ensembles. They weren’t expected to carry a 90 minute or two-hour picture themselves, because no one could figure out what to do with George. In their last one Honolulu (1939), they separated the two completely. (The half-hour sit com format suited them best).

And the Marx Brothers had a great straight man. And contrary to what people usually say, it WASN’T Zeppo! Most of the time, Zeppo was more like a vestigal, underused juvenile. On only a couple of occasions on film is he a straight man in a comedy routine. More often, GROUCHO plays straight man to CHICO, in select scenes in their first six or seven pictures. But notice, once MGM began privileging plots over comedy, those sections of their films evaporated. And later of course, Groucho was straight man to his many contestants on You Bet Your Life. Basically all hosts of variety shows, talk shows and game shows play straight men to their guests.

In all these cases, the straight man is just feeding lines: “No, what IS black and white and red all over, Mr. Bones?”

Then there are two interesting vaudeville teams which lacked a straight man but were nonetheless dependent on artificial routines, thus making it just as hard to integrate them into a plot. Clark and McCullough were surrealists like the Marx Brothers. Interestingly, Paul McCullough was not a straight man, but a stooge, but since Bobby Clark was such a ham, the role wound up just as thankless. They never made it out of two reel comedy shorts as a team, and McCullough’s early suicide prevented possible future exploration. And then there are the Ritz Brothers, whose stock in trade was eccentric musical numbers. Like Burns and Allen they were usually employed best in large ensembles — how do you make them the heroes? They’re essentially a three headed insect!

And so we begin to see what Abbott and Costello (and their producers, writers, handlers) began to accomplish in their films: an integration, an uneasy grafting of such routines into plots. It’s imperfect. Properly speaking, neither member of the team actually has a character, just the faintest of pencil outlines. And normally the plot is non-comical and exceedingly dull. But it is a kind of stepping stone, and given the nature of the team and their experience (delivering five minute verbal comedy routines) kind of miraculous. Martin and Lewis took it a step further, treading a line somewhere between Abbott and Costello and the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey or Hope and Crosby. (They were helped along by the fact that their comedy routines weren’t based on verbal, dialogue based jokes but revolved around Lewis’s bizarre physical antics). But — and here’s what’s instructive — later, similar teams failed. Watch Allen and Rossi in The Last of the Secret Agents (1966) or Rowan and Martin in The Maltese Bippy (1969).

Credit where credit is due! I won’t concede what many seem to claim, that Abbott and Costello are somehow “geniuses”. But you do have to acknowledge that they got farther than just about anybody at solving a certain comedy/ story problem, and so deserve their cherished niche in the film comedy pantheon.

(I have a solution, a secret solution about how to solve the problem, by the way, but I prefer to try to demonstrate it in practice sometime rather than spill it here. Essentially, Shakespeare solved this 400 years ago. And if you think there’s not lowbrow comedy in Shakespeare, look again).

Tonight on TCM: Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by travsd

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Tonight on Turner Classic Movies, no doubt by popular demand, several of the comedies of Abbott and Costello. 

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8:00pm (EST) Hold That Ghost (1941)

The first of A & C’s many spook comedies, a sub-genre much in vogue at the time, and one of the team’s few (maybe the only one?) that doesn’t plug into a pre-existing Universal Pictures horror franchise. The antics aren’t worlds away from the Three Stooges. For musical diversion they are re-united with the popular Andrews Sisters, and Ted Lewis and his band are also on deck. And a supporting cast that includes Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Mischa Auer. 

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9:45pm (EST) Buck Privates (1941)

Abbott and Costello’s first starring vehicle (they were supporting players in their previous film One Night in the Tropics). They are a couple of street vending necktie salesmen. On the lam from cops, they step into what they think is a movie line. It turns out to be army recruiter. Usual boot camp humor. Shemp Howard is very funny as an army cook. The Andrews Sisters  singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” is the highlight of the film. One undeniably interesting aspect of this film: it’s before Pearl Harbor. But you can tell, they knew, they just knew war was coming. It was in the air.

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11:15pm (EST) In the Navy (1941)

What saves this being from being a mere retread of their previous hit (see above) is the presence of Dick Powell, Dick Foran and the Condos Brothers in the cast. Otherwise: it’s Buck Privates on a boat.

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1:00am (EST) Rio Rita (1942)

Abbott and Costello’s remake of the much more charming Wheeler and Woolsey original. The tropical tale is updated to incorporate Nazis but that doesn’t begin to relieve the tedium.

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2:45am (EST) Lost in a Harem (1944)

This is Abbott and Costello’s answer to The Road to Moroccoand…well, wouldn’t you much rather be watching that? Still there are some bonuses, including a riff on the old “Slowly I Turned” burlesque routine, and the lovely Marilyn Maxwell singing along with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. 

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4:30am (EST) Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)

A full color musical and co-starring Charles Laughton, who’d played Kidd before (although here he plays him more like his more famous screen character Captain Bligh, a sort of terrifying monster). The pair work at an inn in jolly old England although they are plainly American. They find a treasure map for skull island and scheme to go there but they don’t need to, as they are shanghaied by Cap’n Kidd anyway. Laughton is vastly funnier than either Abbott and Costello are, effortlessly demonstrating what real talent and craft look like while they shiver in his shadow. There are a couple of boring nameless lovers who are supposed to be the main plot; waiting through their songs is interminable torture. Lots of battle scenes. Between the songs and the battles there’s about 5 minutes’ worth of comedy – exceedingly poor comedy

Several Sad Swan Songs: Unworthy Final Films by Great Comedians

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

Happy Friday! Because people love nothing more than comedy that depresses them, I thought I would do a little post today about the sad exits of several classic comedy stars. By sad, I mean sad, in the literal sense. Most of these comedians are my heroes, who achieved the very highest heights of what it is possible to achieve in the comedy field. Their last films…well, they just kind of bring down their batting average.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

Mae West’s last picture of the original Hollywood studio era (i.e. when she was relatively in her prime) although she would come back in the 1970s to do two more pictures, which we’ll get to. If you are a Mae West fan, The Heat’s On is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers in a crummy conventional plot about putting on a show. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. A pale reflection of her earliest Paramount work.

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Love Happy (1950)

Love Happy by some measures is the Marx Brothers’ last movie as a team, although Groucho’s turn is essentially a cameo, and Chico’s is somewhat underwritten. It was originally devised as a starring vehicle for Harpo. The other two got involved because Chico, a problem gambler,  needed the money.

The movie also has the reputation for being the “worst” Marx Brothers movie, although I don’t happen to agree. Love Happy is a relatively bad movie; it is weird, and it has problems, but personally I wouldn’t call it their worst picture by a long shot.  For various reasons, I would give that dubious honor to either Room Service, Go West or The Big StorePerhaps it is a three way tie.

The plot of Love Happy (co-written by Frank Tashlin)  is the usual contemptible claptrap about a troupe of actors desperate to put on a Broadway show. It is manifestly impossible to care whether they succeed or not.  Doubly so, in light of the undistinguished musical numbers we are obliged to sit through. On the other hand, the cast of the show is literally starving for food and that IS an interesting plot. Harpo, the inexplicable mute who appears to be part of the company, although I’m not sure in what capacity, goes to the basement of a grocery store to steal food for them and wanders away with several cans of sardines. Little does he know that one of the cans contains…stolen diamonds! Such plot as there is involves several wicked crooks trying to recover the jewels, which Harpo doesn’t even know they have. Which is ironic, because they could finance a Broadway show and several groceries if they could just fence these rocks, get me?

What is Chico’s role in all of this? Chico plays Harpo’s Italian friend.

And Groucho? He is a detective who narrates the story and shows up at the end. By now he was a solo movie star (Copacabana1947) and a game show host and had taken to wearing a real mustache and glasses rather than the fake ones that had been his previous trademarks. He is almost literally phoning it in here.

Most memorably, when financing for the film ran out the producers struck product placement deals, giving us the unusual spectacle in the big chase scene at the climax where the Marx Brothers run across rooftops past billboards for Mobil, Bulova, Kool and General Electric. Why, it’s just like watching television!

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Utopia a.k.a Atoll K a.k.a Robinson Crusoeland (released in the U.S. in 1954, but released in Europe three years earlier)

Laurel and Hardy’s last film. The team’s last previous Hollywood film had been in 1945. In the meantime they had been touring with live shows. This being their only film offer, they took it. The film was a French/ Italian co-production. Both Laurel and Hardy suffered a wide variety of health problems as they were filming (see photo above). And the film is almost unwatchably bad. It concerns Laurel inheriting a private island. He and Hardy, and some friends go there in a shabby, broken-down boat. When they arrive, uranium is discovered. That’s the extent of the plot. The script is not funny, and the performances are painful. It’s one of the saddest exits in film history.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

This is Lou Costello’s last film, released posthumously. He had broken up with Bud Abbott two years earlier. In this spoof of the typical drive-in movie fare of the day, he plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of, well, Grape Ape. This is the only film on this list I have not seen, although I’ll trust the conventional wisdom that it’s a stinkeroo. Which only makes me want to see it all the more.

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A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film and first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.

Unfortunately, despite the involvement of these stellar artists the film veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?

So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.

While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.

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

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

Skidoo (1968)

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

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission. While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

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

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

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

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

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Kook’s Tour (1970) 

The Three Stooges’ final product may be the saddest of all. Intended as the pilot for a tv series, it’s essentially a lot of MOS film footage of the three elderly men pretending to goof around on vacation, with Moe Howard providing travelogue style voice over narration. There is no plot, and the slapstick is almost nonexistent. Really Kook’s Tour looks like it exists just to give the old guys something to do. Sadly, Larry Fine’s stroke right after filming spoiled the prospects of a series. As awful as this program is, it’s still got to better than the movie Moe was trying to get off the ground in 1975 undoubtedly would have been.

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Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

This bizarre film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (Yvonne De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al had died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle.

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Sextette (1978)

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

An to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

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Cracking Up (1983)

Okay, Jerry Lewis is still with us, but he is 89 years old, and I think it safe to say that Cracking Up will prove to have been his last comedy film as both director and star. In every case we’ve discussed in this blogpost the movie occurred because the artist didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. And we have to bring some humanity to the contemplation of that. Because that is obviously a hard thing to know how to do. Now Jerry, like many of the folks above (Groucho, Mae West) had more than one “last film”, but kept coming back to the well.  First there was his previous last film as comedy auteur Which Way to the Front (1970), set in Nazi Germany during World War Two. And then there his was aborted Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972). (I like to refer to the years 1970-72 as Jerry’s “Third Reich Period”.) After which he ostensibly and perhaps wisely retired.

But…no, eight years later he returned to the big screen for his big “come back” film Hardly Working (1980). The interesting thing about this phase is what he didn’t do. In the last phase of his previous career, Jerry had been trying to “grow”. From around 1965 through 1972, you can see him trying to adjust his previous screen character to account for the fact that he was now a middle aged man. But when he returned in 1980, it was as though he had said “to hell with that.” He just returned to doing what he always did, only much worse. Audiences had grown more sophisticated on some level since Jerry had left the screen. The big stars were SNL alum who made satirical, daring and hip comedies. Jerry ignored what was going on around him at the time and made a film where he just fell down a lot (at the age of 54). Moderate audiences checked out Hardly Working out of curiosity, and I guess Jerry took that as positive reinforcement for his bad behavior.

So…in 1983 he went back to the well yet again with Smorgasbord , which he renamed Cracking Up. Co-written with his old screenwriting partner Bill Richmond the film does everything it can to ignore the commercial will of audiences in 1983, by phoning in Lewis’s own 2o and 30 year old screen behavior, and populating the rest of the movie with over-exposed tv comedians like Foster Brooks and Milton Berle and football player Dick Butkus. After a single preview, it was decided not to distribute the film to theatres. It went straight to cable tv. (Fortunately, Jerry has had many chances to redeem himself as an actor since 1983. This is his last hurrah as actor/director).

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other 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

Tomorrow on TCM: Joe E. Brown, Abbott and Costello

Posted in Abbott and Costello, April Fool's Day, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Joe E. Brown, Movies with tags , , , on March 31, 2015 by travsd

In observation of April Fool’s Day, tomorrow morning and afternoon Turner Classic Movies will show several comedies starring the hilarious Joe E. Brown and the much less-hilarious team of Abbott and Costello. Time to lower your brows — and then lower them some more!

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6:00am (EST) The Tenderfoot (1933)

Joe E. Brown plays a no-nonsense but nonetheless funny cowpoke who comes to New York with $20,000 in his satchel to invest in business. At first he seems like the kind of guy who can’t be taken, but then he falls for a spiel by some Broadway producers and gives them all his cash. Ginger Rogers is a Capraesque heroine who goes along with the scam against her conscience but then join forces with Brown. Eventually his crazy choices turn the show around and make it a hit. Furthermore he rescues the girl from a bunch of gangsters, chasing their car on horseback, firing his six guns all the way. In the end he brings her back to his texas hometown and marries her. The final shot, of three baby Joe E. Browns, is priceless

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7:15am (EST) Son of a Sailor (1933)

Here, Brown (as he often did) plays a young man living in the shadow of a more distinguished father, in this case, a swab-o. The climax (later exhumed by Laurel and Hardy for Great Guns) has the lad accidentally being used for target practice. In the end, he foils a spy ring! The comedy also features Thelma Todd. 

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8:30am (EST) Fireman, Save My Child (1932)

Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, Joe E. Brown had played professional baseball, a skill he puts to use in several of his comedies.  Here, he’s a small town fireman who absolutely loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy. The funniest scene in the picture occurs when he is showing his fire extinguishing bombs at a company but has brought the wrong bag and sets the office on fire, nearly burning the place down. (The scene seems very much modeled on W.C. Fields’ in So’s Your Old Man and You’re Telling Me!). Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.

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9:45am (EST) Earthworm Tractors

Comedy with a caterpillar. Jeo e. Brown is impeccably cast here as a natural born salesman, unstoppably cheerful, tenacious and unfazed. At first he’s a peddler of gadgets. When he can’t marry his girlfriend because his estate is so lowly he sets his sights higher and decides, almost randomly, to sell earthworm tractors, i.e., bulldozers. He ends up making good. Along the way he falls in love with the daughter of his toughest customer (which is OK because his original girlfriend has married his rival). Much destructive slapstick with bulldozers. As an added bonus, Brown has one killer stunt that reminds us of his acrobat days, where takes a flying backflip off a tree swing and lands in the water.

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11:00am (EST): 6 Day Bike Rider (1934)

A bespectacled Brown in another of his small town hick roles: he sings bass in the church choir and is the station agent at the local depot. The lad is engaged to a girl and becomes jealous when a big shot bike racer comes to town and stays at her boarding house and performs bike tricks at the local vaudeville house. Trying to best the rider, Brown heckles him during the vaudeville show and gets onstage and rides blindfolded. The rider takes the opportunity to walk off with his girl. Brown gets the whole town to form a posse and chase them, but it turns out the guy just brought her home, so Brown looks bad in front of the whole town. His girl throws him over for the other guy. He blows town and coincidentally joins a team which will be racing in a big 6 day bike race (a fad of the time, similar to marathon dancing). Brown winds up in jail for calling the police on the rider yet again (he thinks the girl is in his hotel room for immoral purposes). His time in the jug is preventing him from getting to the big race  in time. The girl relents (the other guy is a cad), and springs him from jail. Brown must first ride to the race on a bike to get there on time, a scene full of crazy stunts. He of course arrives just under the wire and wins the race and the girl. Over use of stock footage and process shots prevent this comedy from being as effective as it ought to be.

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12:15pm (EST): Rio Rita (1942)

Abbott and Costello’s remake of the much more charming Wheeler and Woolsey original. The tropical tale is updated to incorporate Nazis but that doesn’t begin to relieve the tedium.

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2:00pm (EST): Lost in a Harem (1944)

This is Abbott and Costello’s answer to The Road to Moroccoand…well, wouldn’t you much rather be watching that? Still there are some bonuses, including a riff on the old “Slowly I Turned” burlesque routine, and the lovely Marilyn Maxwell singing along with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. 

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3:45pm: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood (1945)

Abbott and Costello take a convoluted course from being a barber and a porter to being big time Hollywood agents. It takes what feels like a thousand years for them to get there.  As a bonus, their old burlesque buddy Rags Ragsland shows up as himself.

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5:15pm: (EST) Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)

A full color musical and co-starring Charles Laughton, who’d played Kidd before (although here he plays him more like his more famous screen character Captain Bly, a sort of terrifying monster). The pair work at an inn in jolly old England although they are plainly American. They find a treasure map for skull island and scheme to go there but they don’t need to, as they are shanghaied by Cap’n Kidd anyway. Laughton is vastly funnier than either Abbott and Costello are, effortlessly demonstrating what real talent and craft look like while they shiver in his shadow. There are a couple of boring nameless lovers who are supposed to be the main plot; waiting through their songs is interminable torture. Lots of battle scenes. Between the songs and the battles there’s about 5 minutes’ worth of comedy – exceedingly poor comedy

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6:30pm (EST) Jack in the Beanstalk (1952)

Abbott and Costello’s first color film was a children’s fairy tale. There is no harm in showing it to your children (I certainly showed it to mine), but try not to accidentally watch any of it yourself. Despite the “it was all a dream” conceit, the film is no Wizard of Oz. In almost every conceivable way it is much more like the later Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). Trivia: the Giant is played by Buddy Baer, brother of boxer Max Baer (and thus uncle of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies). 

To learn more about early 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

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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