Archive for the Burns and Allen Category

Films of Fields #20: International House

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedians, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 4, 2016 by travsd

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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. 

The presence of W.C. Fields is one of the highlights of the terrific all-star Paramount comedy International House (1933), directed by Eddie Sutherland.

I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields as a professor/explorer/ inventor not unlike Groucho’s Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), Stuart Erwin and Bela Lugosi as an evil Russian spy. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

The most unfortunate aspect of the film of course is attitude towards the Chinese, which ranges (in the typical mode of the time) from stereotype to ignoring them completely. Anyway that’s how they used to make Hollywood movies. When we emulate them today, let’s choose only the good parts.

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

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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.

 

The Big Broadcast Films

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by travsd

Since I gave them a mention this morning in a previous post, and I’m way overdue to do so, today I thought I’d do a post on Paramount’s series of Big Broadcast films (and one closely related movie). The Big Broadcast series comes under the category of revue films, usually with very flimsy excuses for a plot (in this case, generally, “we’ve got to save this radio station”). But because of the broadcasting setting, it becomes a very efficient showcase for variety acts, much like a vaudeville show. And THIS of course is the reason why I need to blog about it. In some cases, it’s the only chance you can get to see some performers do their old vaudeville material. In almost every case the Big Broadcast movies are terrible movies….but with terrific patches, much like a vaudeville show. There were many other revue films in the 30s and 40s of course. I’ve blogged about some, and I’ll undoubtedly blog about others. But because of their branding these all go together in a nice, organic clump.

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The Big Broadcast (1932)

The first in the series was actually based on a play, entitled Wild Waves, by William Ford Manley. As a consequence, it hangs together as more of a “real” movie than the later excursions. In this one Bing Crosby is a nonchalant, irresponsible radio crooner; George Burns the station owner (with Gracie Allen as his scatter-brained secretary), Stuart Erwin as a potential backer, and Leila Hyams (of Freaks) as the love interest. Radio acts include The Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, and Arthur Tracy. Do an inventory. That is a LOT of singers.

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International House (1933)

Technically, this is not part of the Big Broadcast series. Paramount hadn’t yet stumbled on the idea of branding it as an annual revue. But….really this is a Big Broadcast movie in every way but the name. It has Stuart Erwin, Cab Calloway and Burns and Allen from the previous film. Burns and Allen would return in the next two Big Broadcast films; and W.C. Fields would return in the final one. Most importantly, The Big Broadcast of 1936 takes from International House the central premise of a prototypical television device as a pretext for presenting the vaudeville acts. This film also includes Bela Lugosi (as the villain of course), Rose Marie, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Franklin Pangborn, Rudy Vallee and Stoopnagle and Budd. Read more about International House in my earlier post here.

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The Big Broadcast of 1936

This one, the first to be presented as a declared annual revue, was directed by Norman Taurog. Here, Jack Oakie is the beleaguered station manager, with Lyda Roberti as a rich, eccentric radio fan who may be persuaded to back him and the fictional romantic poet/crooner he presents. Burns and Allen return as people hawking a new television device per International House. The Nicholas Brothers, in addition to their usual jaw-dropping dancing, actually have good comic roles, woven throughout the picture. Some of the acts presented include Bing Crosby (here just performing a number as opposed to being the star, as in the first Big Broadcast picture), Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles (in a comedy sketch), Ethel Merman, and the terrific knockabout team of Willie, West and McGinty (whose turn suffers a little by being cut up into smaller segments)

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The Big Broadcast of 1937

Great talent abounds, but without a doubt this is the weakest in the series. Jack Benny plays the station manager, one “Jack Carson” (ha, but don’t let that confuse you). Burns and Allen return, Ray Milland plays his usual big stiff (he got better as a middle aged man, a time in life when you’re supposed to be a big stiff), and there’s also Bob Burns a.k.a The Arkansas Traveler, Bennie Fields (without Blossom Seeley — she had quit the act a year before and it’s a drag because she was the one with the electricity), Martha Raye, and Bennie Goodman and his Orchestra, featuring Gene Krupa. 

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The Big Broadcast of 1938

The series rebounded a little here, and it features many added bonuses. One is that takes place on a racing ocean liner, not just another radio station. Two is that W.C. Fields is in it and plays a pair of twins. This would be Fields’ last film for Paramount. He was in very bad shape at the time, and truly people at the time feared that it would be his last film, period. Still he is quite funny in it and even manages to squeeze in some of his popular routines. Three, the film features Bob Hope in one of his first roles, and he sings for the first time the song with which he would there ever after be identified: “Thanks for the Memory”. Martha Raye returns as an unlucky gal (she and Hope were always very funny together), and the movie also stars Dorothy Lamour (previous to any of the Road pictures), and Ben Blue.

One crucial missing element: Burns and Allen. The Big Broadcast series can be said to have been the closest thing to a series of Burns and Allen pictures (despite the fact that they were always in the ensemble). After Honolulu the following year, they moved away from film, concentrating on radio and television. And there’s something telling about that. Broadcasting is a medium with immediacy, a perfect platform for variety acts. Ironically, film — even a film story about radio — isn’t. There’s something mechanical and dinosaur-like about presenting variety acts in film. I can’t say I’m not grateful for it – -it’s often the only record we have of many performers. But radio and tv (and now the web)…they’re much closer to the in-your-face, exciting experience of live performance. Who needs a Big Broadcast movie when you have radio itself?

 

“Say Goodnight, Gracie” Tonight and Tomorrow

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight and tomorrow night, Alan Safier stars as George Burns in the one man show Say Goodnight, Gracie at the Queens Theatre. For info and tickets go here. 

International House

Posted in Asian, Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by travsd

internationalhouse

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the terrific all-star Paramount comedy International House (1933), directed by Eddie Sutherland.

I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), Stuart Erwin and Bela Lugosi as an evil Russian spy. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

The most unfortunate aspect of the film of course is attitude towards the Chinese, which ranges (in the typical mode of the time) from stereotype to ignoring them completely. Anyway that’s how they used to make Hollywood movies. When we emulate them today, let’s choose only the good parts.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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“The Sunshine Boys” on TCM This Eve

Posted in Broadway, Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on February 21, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight at 6pm (E.S.T.) Turner Classic Movies will be showing a particular favorite of many show biz buffs, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975). This comedy about a bickering vaudeville team who come out of retirement for a last day in the sun is (surprisingly) one of the few such movies to dip into such a potentially fertile field.

People have always loved this movie, which contains so many “meta” show biz echoes. Jack Benny was originally to have co-starred in the film, but he was felled by cancer before shooting began. Benny was replaced by his friend George Burns, whose last film had been 36 years earlier. It (and his subsequent hit films) elevated Burns to a level of movie stardom he had never enjoyed before. And he won an Oscar!

As for the comedy routines in the film, they seem to me largely adapted from the sketches of Smith and Dale, a pair of men every self-respecting vaudeville fan ought to know about (read all about them here). However all the contentious relations between the two men, and the reunion seem to be more inspired by the team of Gallagher and Sheen. (And the sexy nurse is completely out of place. That’s a borrowing from burlesque. That business never would have been allowed in vaudeville, let alone in that outfit. But who am I to quibble with such a nurse?!)

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To learn more about  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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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Ranconteurs: A Story of George Burns and Gracie Allen

Posted in Burns and Allen, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on November 6, 2013 by travsd

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I was delighted to see three different people, all of whom I met separately and through three entirely different connections, all collaborating in Lauren Milberger’s reading for her new play The Raconteurs, A Story of George Burns and Gracie Allen last night. Lauren I’d met because we both contributed essays to the book Playbills to Photoplays: Stage Performers Who Pioneered the Talkies. She is THE go-to person on the subject of Gracie — read her guest-post on the subject for Travalanche here. I was thrilled to see she also DOES an amazing Gracie impression, one of the show’s many highlights. Also in the cast was Jonathan Smith, whom I first met at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington years ago at a book event for No Applause. His  Jack Benny impersonation (and his acting) are spot on. And the proceedings were directed by Allan Lewis Rickman, who had directed Shane Baker’s wonderful The Big Bupkis and appears in Lisa Ferber’s Sisters Plotz web series. I also really enjoyed Kevin Sebastian as George Burns, and Iris McQullian-Grace in several roles.

Small world??? Nah, read John Allan Paulos’s Innumeracy. We’re all old time show biz buffs….hardly a representative sampling of the public at large. So we were all bound to be in the same place at the same time SOME time. (Oh my God, have I become a nerd? Where’s my pocket protector?)

At any rate, this was a developmental reading not a production, so this is not a review, just a report, although I think I can freely say I really enjoyed it.

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