Archive for the Three Stooges Category

In Which I Rank the Top 10 Film Comedy Teams of the Sound Era

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Movies, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by travsd

Because we like to swim in dangerous waters, we thought we’d ruin your Sunday by dashing off a quick listicle ranking the top ten male classic movie comedy teams of the sound era. By “classic” we restrict the time frame to the 1930s-50s. We’ve also narrowed it down to teams that starred in their own films (ruling out, for example, Burns and Allen). The criteria for judging are: 1) quality; 2) ratio of good films to bad ones; and 3) volume (meaning not noisiness, but quantity). By using these criteria I think we’ve arrived at a balanced, fair and objective list that will not only surprise people but inevitably piss many of them off. True justice always does.

1.Laurel and Hardy

I won’t be unique in calling Laurel and Hardy the greatest film comedy team of all time, a factor of the sheer number of their films (both shorts and features), the excellence, variety, and originality of these comedies, and the fact that relatively few of them (essentially just a handful, the ones they made during their last decade) are undeniably bad. I’m comfortable calling them the greatest.

2. The Three Stooges

Some will be appalled by the high standing I give the Stooges; others will be appalled that they aren’t number one. Granted they are the most low-brow of all comedy teams and by no stretch of the imagination are they actors. On the other hand, they are EXTREMELY original, their characterizations (in every incarnation of the act, and there were many) were funny, unique and memorable. And this above all: 220 films, 190 of them being those Columbia comedy shorts. So, yes, there is virtue in quantity (even if they did repeat themselves on many occasions.) That, and their mass appeal, which lasts among millions even unto this day.

3. Wheeler and Woolsey

The idea that this team ranked so high was the precipitating cause of doing this in the first place. When I prepared my post on Wheeler and Woolsey’s films the other day, it occurred to me that they just may have the best track record in features of any classic comedy team. 22 of them over eight years, all of them pretty damn entertaining. Comedy fans tend to punish Robert Woolsey for seeming like a lesser George Burns or Groucho, but looked at through another prism, it seems to me the later duos (Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis) all borrow their formulas from Wheeler and Wooley. Further helping their high standing is the sad fact that Woolsey was cut down in the prime of life, which meant there would be no decline for the team. (Although Wheeler did suffer on his own when his partner died). Both members of the team were old musical comedy hands, they could act better than most of the comedians on this list, meaning that they were easier to integrate into stories. All in all, an under-rated and unjustly forgotten comedy team, whose standing deserves to be restored with the public.

4. The Marx Brothers

“But the Marx Brothers are the greatest comedy team in history”, you say, “how can they be fourth on this list?” Even agree with you! And yet the Marx Brothers are hobbled in the standings by their relative paucity of films, and the high ratio of bad ones to good ones. Of 13 features, about half are brilliant and most of the rest fairly dreadful. It must be remembered that they started making pictures relatively late in life. Chico, the oldest, was already 50 years old by A Day at the Races (1937), the start of their decline. By the time of Love Happy (195o), their last as a team, he was 63. I’m not saying you can’t be funny when you’re old (look at W.C. Fields), but the Marx Brothers at their height were an act predicated on energy. Pace is only one of many factors (which we’ve written about elsewhere) why the team and their films were not up to their own standards for a good half of their cinematic career.

5. Hope and Crosby

We can scarcely call Hope and Crosby a comedy team. Each had incredible solo careers and they only made seven comedies together. Of the seven, the first was prototypical (i.e., they weren’t yet a team) and the last was pretty bad, which doesn’t leave much numerically. But this handful of “Road” movies are magical, and so indelible that we tend to think of these guys as one of the seminal, archetypical comedy teams, despite the fact that the partnership was just a lark they indulged in from time to time.

6. Olsen and Johnson

I was going to put these guys much lower on the list, but in the end I decided that, much like the Marx Brothers, their excellent comedies are so excellent that they float their worse ones. The dichotomy is so stark it’s tough to reconcile. Olsen and Johnson made nine features. In their first five, made for Warner Bros and Republic, of all places, the team are so boring they barely register. On the basis of those movies alone, I’d put them near the bottom. But in 1941 they transferred their crazy Broadway show Hellzapoppin to the big screen for Universal. That and its follow-up Crazy House (1943) reinvented the team for films (the irony is that their stage act had always been that crazy, it’s just that their screen vehicles of the 30s hadn’t tapped into it). Much like W.C. Fields, Olsen and Johnson’s best screen era was their last phase, and also at Universal.

7. Clark and McCullough

I acknowledge that this may be the most subjective and knee jerk film team on this list. I happen to love this idiosyncratic duo, whose films are a sort of conceptual mix of the Marx Brothers (surreal) and the Three Stooges (short subjects). Clark and McCullough made about three dozen shorts for Fox and RKO. I’ve only seen about a third of them, if that, but I know what I like. There’s no way I’m putting them below any of the guys who are beneath them on this list.

8. Abbott and Costello

If we were including their television and radio shows, I’d likely put this team higher, but their cinematic output, while both voluminous and popular, consists of features that padded out their scattered comedy routines with boring plot filler, making them two or three times longer than they needed to be. My secret theory is that most people who claim to be hard core A&C fans either haven’t seen all (or many) of their films or know them chiefly from edited compilations containing only the classic comedy routines. The features in their entirety are almost unwatchable, as entertaining as the team can be from time to time.**

9. Martin and Lewis

Ditto Martin and Lewis. The films are mostly filler, with the added drawback of Lewis’s irritating self indulgence marring also the comedy portions. Ironically I like his solo films better, where his crazy vision engulfs the whole movie. The Martin and Lewis movies are both dull and painful, simply an ordeal.

 

10. The Ritz Brothers

They could sing, dance and make faces, but as for portraying characters in a narrative film the Ritz Brothers might as well have been three trained mules. Ironically, in contrast with most of the teams listed here, their track record of VEHICLES is quite solid. The actual movies were quite good, or entertaining, or whatever (thanks largely to scripts, direction, co-stars), but I find calling the Ritz Brothers a “comedy team” problematic. It’s a comedy team in which all three members are the same guy. And the guy is just as irritating as Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis. There’s no way the Ritz Brothers wouldn’t have been at the bottom of this list.

 

** “On the contrary, I happen to like 4 out of the 36 disposable garbage-films Abbott and Costello made, therefore I cannot agree with you when you say that most of their movies don’t measure up to the scores of masterpieces by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy etc” — the typical slapdash, self-contradictory defense of the team people feel it necessary to bother me with. About eight people have replied with such like illogical and groundless rebuttals; we acknowledge no obligation to publish them.  I understand feeling the need to defend these films when you’re eight years old. When you’re no longer eight years old, the impetus for indignation escapes me. 

Of Curly Joe and the Three Stooges’ Final Phase

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

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

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

See? They’re ARTISTS!

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

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

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

So now they do fairy tales yet

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

There Were More Than Just Three: On Stooges in the Show Business

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Three Stooges, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by travsd

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Think ya know what a stooge is, do ya? I’ll lay dollars to donuts that when you hear that word two definitions or associations will occur to you, and both of them are admittedly correct. But I am going to tell you about a third.

The meanings of “stooge” which you already know I imagine are these 1) the dictionary definition: a fall guy, chump or idiot; 2) a well known comedy act, consisting of 3 such idiots, which made comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959 and a few features here and there before and after.

All true. My third definition of the word lies somewhere in between the other two and will perhaps illuminate both. In vaudeville, the word had a generic use — a stooge was a comedy performer who would pretend to be a member of the audience, or an usher, or stagehand or such like and thus enliven a comedy act by making a surprise appearance from an unexpected part of the theatre. Stooges weren’t the only vaudeville performers with at least one foot in the audience. Vaudeville acts lived or died by novelty and surprise. Many different kinds of acts employed surreptitious surrogates. For example, very often famous vocalists would employ “balcony singers”, apprentice warblers who would surprise the audience by joining in on a song from a place in the seats. Al Jolson  (among scores or hundreds) got his start in this way. And, as I’m sure you know magicians and mind readers often employ confederates or audience plants who assist them in various ways to create their supernatural illusions. So the stooge is a subset of this larger group. A stooge is a comedian who pretends to be one of the public, and interrupts the comedy act on stage by heckling or causing some other disturbance.

That’s the genesis of the Three Stooges. Moe and Shemp Howard and later Larry Fine were hired to cause such commotions during Ted Healy’s act.  The Howard brothers’ first dates with Healy happened right down the street from my house; the theatre where that historic occasion transpired is now a C-Town Supermarket. So these guys became “Ted Healy’s Stooges.” And Healy had many other ones, by the way. Sometimes he used more than just the well-known three. At other times he fired those three and hired others. Mousie Garner and Fred Sanborn were some of Healy’s other stooges. When the famous three finally broke with Healy for good they become something unprecedented — stooges without a lead comedian — and branded themselves The Three Stooges. And in time the world found itself thinking those three were the original and only three.

But the universe of stooges was and is much wider. There were scores of them in vaudeville, probably hundreds in the history of modern show business if we include night clubs, Broadway, burlesque and so forth.

For example, Frank Fay employed Patsy Kelly in such a role. Joe Cook had Dave Chasen. Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin was practically ALL Stooges (Joe Besser, among many others was one of them). Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, originally the lead comedian of the act, was gradually demoted to JUST the stooge. Jerry Lewis was Dean Martin’s stooge in nightclubs, and you can see their act re-created in their earliest films (and their 1952 comedy The Stooge paints a nice picture of what a vaudeville stooge did.) And comedians continue to use stooges, especially on television (I think particularly of Chris Elliott on the David Letterman show, although this is already decades ago, but comedy shows still use this technique).

Just some more news you can’t use!

To learn out more about vaudeville, including the employment of professional stooges, consult No Applause, Just Throw oney: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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

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.

the-heats-on-mae-west-xavier-cugat-everett

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.

love-happy

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 (Copacabana, 1947) 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!

Atoll_k

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.

countess_mpb11

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.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

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 over 90 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

Jules White: Architect of Destruction

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great comedy film producer and director Jules White (1900-1985).

White is alternately revered and reviled among comedy and film fans; I am unabashed in my admiration for him (we’ll get to his flaws anon). His mark on comedy history was as the head of Columbia’s short subject division from 1933 to 1959, a period during which all the other big and small studios were closing their doors or simply phasing out comedy shorts: (Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Educational Pictures, RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM, etc) giving White for a time a virtual monopoly. White was not just the production chief for this division, but kept his hand in as director and producer.

I think it’s telling that  he learned the movie trade first as an editor working for his brother Jack White, a producer at Educational Pictures. Comedy is about rhythm and timing, and one of the things I love about the house style during his reign at Columbia is the way the comedies are cut. From editing, he graduated to directing the likes of Lige Conley and Cliff Bowes. In 1930 he launched a series of hokey all-dog comedies called “Dogville” at MGM, in which trained pooches dressed in clothes enacted parodies of hit films, with offscreen actors supplying voices. While at MGM, he and his colleague Zion Myers also co-directed the 1931 Buster Keaton talking feature Sidewalks of New York. 

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Then in 1933, the opportunity at Columbia, where White was responsible for turning out hundreds of comedy shorts starring the Three Stooges (nearly half his output), Hugh Herbert, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde and dozens of others. Some may be appalled but I would list Jules White among my favorite comedy film directors, possible among my top ten, but definitely among my top 20 or 25. Broad and fast-paced, and invariably violent (sometimes admittedly too violent), it’s the closest live action slapstick has gotten to the energy of animated cartoons (with the exception of Frank Tashlin’s work, and of course Tashlin started in animation). White’s style is unmistakable at every level: how it is shot, how the actors are directed to behave, how it is edited, and how it is scored (often with cartoonish sound effects). White has a STYLE. How many directors of comedy — in fact, how many directors can you say that about? Furthermore, he achieves clarity: clarity of vision, clarity of intention and clarity of result. Again, how many can you really say this about?

It isn’t for all audiences, nor was it for all performers. Buster Keaton, who liked to take his time on a bit, was a fish out of water in White’s universe, and his Columbia comedies came out terrible. And towards the end of his tenure, White grew lazy, and in the name of expedience he would re-use gags, plots and even footage from old films. Some of the critical scorn White has earned has to do with this later period.

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White dabbled in tv after Columbia closed its shorts division and then retired in 1961. His last film short was Sappy Bull Fighters (1959).

To learn more about slapstick 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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The Three Stooges: The Movie Years

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Stars of Slapstick, Television, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by travsd

 

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Continued from our main post about the Three Stooges origins here. 

In 1934, the Three Stooges inked a deal at Columbia Pictures where they went on to make 190 classic comedy shorts and six features. A second, even greater burst of fame occurred when the shorts began to be shown regularly on television in the 1950s, after Curly and Shemp had already passed away.

An animated Saturday morning cartoon came out in the 1960s, as did a 1970s Hannah-Barbara cartoon called Jabberjaw, the characterization of which was clearly based on Curly. Moe was still trying to get a new feature film off the ground when he and then Larry, both passed away in 1975. In the 1980s, a song called “The Curly Shuffle” with Curly’s sampled voice calling “Hey, Moe! Hey, Moe! Hey, Moe!” was at the top of the Billboard charts. And in 2000, their lives were the subject of an ABC TV movie executive produced by Mel Gibson. And the Farrelly brothers releases this tribute in 2012. 

The evergreen success of the 3 Stooges is a testament above all to the power of television. The man who brought them together and originally presided over them Ted Healy was no slouch in his day. He was as well known as anyone in vaudeville in his salad days. He was a familiar face in films. He was there along with Ken Murray to give encouragement to the neophyte Bob Hope when he made his Palace debut. Billy Rose considered him his favorite comedian. Yet today he is a footnote.

His fate is analogous that of Brian Jones, who founded the Rolling Stones only to have the group stolen out from under him by the more aggressive and charismatic team of Jagger and Richards, and then taken to heights of phenomenal success. What is there to do but self-destruct at that point?

Despite their phenomenal success, I’ve always felt there is a missing ingredient in the act known as Three Stooges. One suspects that it is the presence of Ted Healy–a link to reality.

 

For more on the Three Stooges 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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Joe Besser: Such a Pinch!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Three Stooges, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2013 by travsd

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Easily one of the most bizarre comedians to infiltrate the annals of comedy, Joe (“Ooooooo, cut it out!) Besser (born this day in 1907) is also (though many people don’t know his name) one of the most recognizable. Short and rotund, with a whiny effeminate manner and petulant, infantile disposition he was a natural for one-offs and guest shots on tv sit-coms and variety shows in the 1950s and 60s, which I imagine is where most people have seen him. Comedy fans know him from his two major recurring comedy gigs: 1) as the third-tier Stooge who replaced Shemp after Shemp replaced Curly (who had earlier replaced Shemp) in the Three Stooges; 2) and as “Stinky” the exceptionally weird middle-age, lollipop-licking brat in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit in the Abbott and Costello tv show. But for somebody who never managed to crack the highest levels of  stardom he certainly made enviable success in practically every branch of show business — vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, and television.

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He grew up in St. Louis, with eight older siblings who all but guaranteed his career choice. His brother Manny was a burlesque comic. His seven older sisters were…well, seven older sisters. At 13, he ran away and became an audience plant for magic acts, first Thurston for three years, then Madam Herrman for two more. But he clearly had a knack for comedy. In 1926, he went to work as a stooge for the comedy team of Alexander and Olsen, the latter of whom was the brother of Olsen and Johnson’s Ole Olsen (a relationship that would stand him in good stead in later years). Soon he began working with a succession of partners in his own teams, during which time he developed the comic character he became known for. This led to voice work on the top comedy shows of the radio era, Fred AllenJack Benny, Milton BerleBurns and AllenEddie Cantor, and many others. He became part of Olsen and Johnson’s crazy Broadway stock company; the show he was in, Sons o’ Fun ran from 1941 through 1943. The following year, he went out to Hollywood to work as a contract player for Columbia Pictures. With the exception of 1949’s Africa Screams with Abbott and Costello, most of the pictures were forgettable. TV called next with a regular spot on Ken Murray’s variety series in 1950, followed by his 1952 stint on The Abbott and Costello Show. 

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In 1956,he was hired on to replace the recently deceased Shemp Howard (whom he’d worked with in the past) in several Three Stooges shorts. (Most casual viewers hate these late films, feeling shortchanged by the absence of Curly or Shemp. I’m of the opposite opinion. At this stage, the presence of Joe Besser is the most interesting thing in those films, which are generally remakes of earlier shorts made by the team when they were younger, fresher  and better budgeted). Besser continued to do guest spots on tv, with diminishing frequency, through the 1970s. He also became a familiar voice on children’s cartoons. He passed away in 1988 — and gave St. Peter such a pinch!

Here he is in the role of Stinky on The Abbott and Costello Show:

To learn more about slapstick comedy, 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 find out more 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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