Archive for 1930s

Norma Shearer: The Subtle Magnet

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

I have a friend — a female friend — who never talks about Norma Shearer (1902-1983) without talking about how ugly and unappealing she finds her. I suppose my friend looks at her and sees what Shearer herself saw (and apparently what the ungenerous Flo Ziegfeld saw when she auditioned for him): eyes that were too close together and even sometimes (from certain angles) crossed in the bargain, almost as though both peepers both pointed at her aquiline, George Washington-esque nose. But I’ve always found her powerfully attractive. It’s rare for people who don’t deviate in some way from the ideal to make an impression. Shearer makes an impression — not only because she’s beautiful, but also weighty, serious, strong-willed, confident: qualities you want in a dramatic actor.

Also, probably because of her quirky looks, she became much more chameleon-like than other leading ladies who were her contemporaries. I had a devil of a time finding a “representative” photo to head this post with. There is no such thing. Her characters all look quite a bit different from one another. I suppose the “archetypal” look I might be tempted to choose is from The Women — but she looks (intentionally) on the frumpy side through most of that picture — it’s the one in which she loses her husband to real life offscreen rival and schemer Joan Crawford. But in so many of her films she possesses real glamorous beauty, from flappers and vamps in the silent days to Marie Antoinette (one of my favorite of her films, and one of the best of all MGM films I think). The picture above was chosen almost at random, because I was tired of trying to find just the right one.

I didn’t discover Shearer until quite late in life. There are a bunch of stars like that, mostly of the Pre-Code era, and I’ve ended up being particular fans of their’s, maybe because I was old enough when I discovered them to pay particular close attention and to say “Oh my God, here is a WHOLE MOVIE STAR with a WHOLE CAREER I’ve never even looked at yet!” and to really appreciate and savor the experience. I think the only one of her movies I saw as a kid was that silly 1936 Romeo and Juliet where she and Leslie Howard are both 20 years older than their characters. I still haven’t seen most of her silent work as a star, only He Who Gets Slapped (1925) with Lon Chaney, and Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). But by now I’ve seen a good deal of her sound work: The Hollywood Revue of 1929; her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcee (1930) opposite Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery; Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931), again with Montgomery; The Barrets of Wimpole Street with Charles Laughton (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1939) and The Women (1939). She made three films afterwards which I’ve yet to watch.

The fact that some of her best work happened after her husband (and let’s face it, patron) Irving Thalberg died speaks to her hard won fitness for the role of movie star. But her last couple of films failed, and she retired young (age 40) a very rich woman.

Some interesting things about her early career, which initially prompted me to do this post. One is, that she was inspired to go into show business at age nine when she was taken to a vaudeville show in her native Montreal. Another is that her first movie job was the 1919 Larry Semon comedy The Star Boarder! (She was a member of the Big V Beauty Squad, Vitagraph’s attempt to compete with Mack Sennett’s Bathing Girls). She was also an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold, and about silent film, Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

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


Chester Morris

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the actor Chester Morris (John Chester Brook Morris, 1901-1970).

Many people know Morris primarily as the star of the Boston Blackie serials from the 1940s. I discovered him via another route — he was one of the major Hollywood stars of the Pre-code era of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Morris had an interesting and thus memorable mein, at once good-looking, dark, brooding, and yet somehow goofy. Thus he was well suited for the gritty world of Pre-Code where ordinary people often had dark motives and secrets and made grown-up mistakes. Morris could play the likable young man whose slight frown let you know he was worried about what else was going on beneath the surface. Murder mysteries, gangster pictures, and racy illicit love dramas were his stock in trade.

Morris was the son of the successful Broadway actors William Morris and Etta Hawkins. He dropped out of school to take a role in the Broadway show The Copperhead with Lionel Barrymore in 1918. He made two silent movies with the Thanhouser Film Corporation and did about a half dozen more Broadway shows before he teamed up with parents and his three siblings in the big time vaudeville family act “The Horrors of Home”. The family toured the circuits for two years (1924 and 1925), before they all went back to their separate careers. Morris starred on Broadway through 1928 before heading out to Hollywood with the advent of talkies.

The first fruit of this new phase of his film career was the Prohibition gangster picture Alibi (1929), directed by Roland West, and released in both silent and sound versions. He’s in the early musical revue The Show of Shows (1929); the Winnie Lightner vehicle She Couldn’t Say No (1930); the infidelity romance The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery and Conrad Nagel; The Bat Whispers (1930), Roland West’s remake of Mary Roberts’ Rineharts’ The Bat; a remake of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1932), directed by Norman McLeod and co-starring Sylvia Sidney, Ned Sparks and Boris Karloff (the original silent version of this strange tale had starred Lon Chaney); Red-Headed Woman (1932) opposite Jean Harlow; the western Three Godfathers (1936) with Walter Brennan (also made in earlier and later versions by John Ford); and the amazing cannibalism/disaster picture Five Came Back (1939), with Lucille Ball, John Carradine and C. Aubrey Smith.

The forties were mostly a time for B movies for Morris, with the Boston Blackie series, based on the popular radio show, as his bread and butter for the entire decade, and the occasional other picture sprinkled in. In the 1950s and 60s he mostly did television, with three notable exceptions: the prison picture Unchained (1955), AIP’s The She-Creature (1956), in which he plays a hypnotist who takes his lady subject into a past-life regression…into her life as a sea monster! And his touching, symbolic swan song, as a fight manager in The Great White Hope (1970, released posthumously). He was dying of stomach cancer (an especially painful way to go) when he OD’d on barbituates at the age of 70.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Classic Horror: A Thumbnail Guide to The Studios

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by travsd

Most of the posts in our month long series on Gothic horror  (launched here) will concern films produced in Hollywood during the classic studio era of the 1930s and 1940s. We thought a brief primer or road map might be useful for the new initiate.

While all of the major studios produced films in all or most of the major genres, there was a certain amount of specialization. Paramount was known for comedy, Warner Brothers for gritty crime dramas, etc. But only three of the studios made horror films in such profusion that they developed what could be called full on horror brands: Universal, MGM and RKO. The other major studios, while they made occasional horror films, did so only occasionally and cautiously. The caution was understandable. While a particularly sensational horror film could be big box office (indeed some of them were the biggest studio hits of any given year), they could be problematic. State and local censors tended to chop them to pieces; some markets banned them outright. And if they were too horrible or disturbing (e.g., MGM’s Freaks), the public could turn on them too. But some visionary producers and studio chiefs deemed them worth the gamble.


Universal Studios

In the long run, Universal became the undisputed top horror studio in the 1930s and ’40s, and it’s always the first one we think of when we think of classic horror. Their success had three major phases. Their first major hit in the genre had been the silent The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Then in 1931, Dracula was a major smash, to be followed up by Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and too many other films to list. They had great success with these iconic monster characters and began to make sequels with them, although by the mid ’30s the Production Code started to adversely affect the quality of their output. Then in 1941, they had another major smash with The Wolf Man, launching an entirely new cycle, this time with an aggressive schedule of sequels lasting through the 40s and (thanks to Universal house comedians Abbott and Costello, into the 1950s). The popularity of the Universal monsters lasted well beyond the studio era — lasts in fact to this day. Universal also made dozens of other great horror movies featuring top stars like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (e.g. The Black Cat, The Murders in the Rue Morgue) which didn’t center on one of these famous characters.



RKO also excelled at horror, developed its own house style, and had a couple of different phases. Its biggest horror hit was King Kong (1933), which largely overshadows and informs the others, but other interesting ones included The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933) and She (1935). I think of the same art deco house style that characterized their musicals as informing the art direction in their horror films of the 1930s.

The second phase of RKO horror (the 1940s) was dominated by the sensibility of screenwriter and producer Val Lewton, who specialized in horror films that today are much prized for being subtle, understated, and noirish. A post on him will follow later this month.



Today we associate MGM mainly with musicals but in the silent days of the 1920s and in the early half of the 1930s, they had a distinctive horror brand, mostly associated with the star Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning.  Popular revulsion to the latter’s film Freaks kind of spoiled the party, although the studio did continue to make some horror films after that.


As we said, the other studios didn’t invest enough in horror to develop distinctive brands, but each turned out a handful of classics:



Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both the 1920 and 1931 versions), Island of Lost Souls (1932) Murders in the Zoo (1933), Dr. Cyclops (1940)


Warner Brothers 

Svengali (1931), Dr. X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933),  The Walking Dead (1936), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)


The 20th Century Film Corp. and 20th Century Fox (name changed in 1935 due to merger)

This studio produced tons of mysteries and suspense thrillers that often verged on horror, but mostly stayed away from horror outright. Some movies that went all the way into the genre included Chandu the Magician (1932), Dante’s Inferno (1935), and The Undying Monster (1942)



Columbia was a smaller studio, almost single handedly kept afloat by the hits of Frank Capra. Their few horror movies, like The Return of the Vampire (1943), and Cry of the Werewolf (1944), tended to be ripoffs of the Universal house style.


Below this of course, we have the smaller independent studios such as Republic, Monogram, PRC etc which made B movies. They released some horror films in the ’30s and ’40s, but such studios would play a much larger role in the horror markets of the 1950s and ’60s.

Comedies of Joe E. Brown

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Joe E. Brown, Movies with tags , , , , , , on July 28, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Joe E. Brown — for more on this comedian’s early career see my full bio here.

He’s not to everybody’s tastes. Many people I know and respect don’t care for him. But I happen to love him. He tickles my funny bone. Part of the problem, I think, is that nearly every one of his movies is fairly dull and formulaic. They are basically old Keaton and Lloyd plots dusted off for the 30s, with routine dialogue and fewer gags…which would later be dusted off again later for the likes of Red Skelton and Danny Kaye. Yet, while the scripts aren’t any great fonts of wit for the most part, I find that the screen lights up whenever Brown is present. His instincts remind me a lot of Jim Carrey’s. The man BASKS in attention. As long as the camera is rolling and the lights are pointed his way he is doing SOMETHING with his great comic mask and acrobat’s body. (Yes, I am not above laughing at funny faces.)  One of my favorite tricks of his is a sort of yell he does, where he modulates the volume, almost as though he were turning an inner knob. It’s a really strange vocal gag that I’ve never ever heard anyone else do. But Brown is more than than a bunch of visual and aural gimmicks. He’s actually a pretty fair actor, and he does get his occasional moments of pathos in the pictures.

Like everyone else living, I got my first taste of him in some of his later pictures, like Some Like it Hot (1959) and the Show Boat remake (1951), which are not real measures of Joe E. Brown the comedy star. For years I simply read about him in books. Then, fortuitously I got my first sample of Brown in his prime in his Vitaphone short Twinkle, Twinkle (1927), which I believe was shown by Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project at Film Forum. This is basically a stand-up routine, but I found him screamingly funny in it — too funny. As for the films below, I caught them all on TCM. It seems like a lot (and it is a lot), but it’s hardly Brown’s total output — it’s more like 3/4 of it. When I catch the remainder, I guess I’ll file an addendum:


On With the Show (1929)

There is everything to love in this backstage musical/ murder mystery whose all-star ensemble includes Brown, Betty CompsonArthur Lake, Sam Hardy, Sally O’Neil, Louize Fazenda, Harry Gribbon, Lee Moran, Ethel Waters, and the Fairbanks Twins. Really what’s not to love? There’s no way I wouldn’t love this (or any) movie that depicts stage life at the time…even if it were terrible I would love it for historical reasons. Anyway, it’s not terrible, it’s quite entertaining. Brown’s not the star, just one of the company members, who constantly bickers with the obnoxious juvenile, played by Lake. (Brown doesn’t really get to shine until the advent of his starring vehicles a year later). On With the Show was a landmark Technicolor film, but if I recall correctly the version I saw was in black and white.


 Sally (1929)

Sally had been a smash Broadway vehicle for its star Marilyn Miller, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, a decade earlier. (It ran from 1920 to 1922. ) Its smash hit tune was “Look For the Silver Lining”, forever associated with Miller thereafter. The movie version of Sally was the third all-talking, all-COLOR film. Once again, Brown is not the star, but he is third-billed as an exiled Grand Duke who helps young Sally rise from her status as lowly dishwasher to…a somebody. The cast also includes Pert Kelton, Ford Sterling and Jack Duffy.


Hold Everything (1930)

This is the one movie on this page I haven’t seen, but I know a little about it because it’s somewhat notorious. The film was based on a hit Broadway smash starring Bert Lahr – -and Lahr was understandably upset for the rest of his life that the film role went to Brown (and that his own movie career pretty much went nowhere, Cowardly Lion notwithstanding. Lahr believed if he’d gotten to star in the film version of this vehicle, things might have gone differently). At any rate, Hold Everything, as you can tell from the poster was a boxing comedy. The usual drill — a lummox is mistaken for a star prizefighter and has to make good. Winnie Lightner co-starred, along with Sally O’Neil. As far as is known, the film is lost; only the Vitaphone disks survive today.


Top Speed (1930)

Written by Kalmar and Ruby and directed by Mervyn Leroy, this is one of the better  Joe E. Brown vehicles, full of great jokes, songs and musical numbers.  One of Kalmar and Ruby’s more conventional vehicles, not as crazy as many of them, but still better than many of B rown’s other films. It co-stars Jack Whiting (best known as the second husband of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks). The pair play a couple of brokers’ clerks on vacation, who end up at a swanky resort and masquerade as rich playboys. The boys rescue a couple of girls from a car wreck, and romance them. Joe’s girlfriend is played by Laura Lee, a hilarious and cute comedienne, whose career was far too short for my tastes. At any rate, the boys can only stay one day. They get involved in the big speedboat race….(ha! A plot later used by Elvis!) It so happens that Whiting’s character is an expert on speedboats (his grandfather built them, how convenient). Billy Bletcher has a bit part as a chauffeur. Lots of resort business, reminiscent of Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers. (This feeling is enhanced by the presence of character actor Edmund Breese, from the former film). Lot’s of melodrama and farce about throwing the big boat race, not throwing the big boat race, and then winning the big boat race (in front of bad process shots, of course). And best of all — an excellent Pre-Code gratuitous lady undressing scene!


Going Wild (1930)

This one is set at a resort that is struggling for guests. Brown and his traveling companion are kicked off a train for lacking tickets. Brown is mistaken for a famous aviator who’s had a nervous breakdown. He enjoys all the attention and affects a posh accent  but hasn’t grappled with the fact that he will have to actually fly in an airplane race. A big boastful speech. A challenge. Preparations, contraptions. He’s supposed to be going up with an expert pilot, who will work the controls for him. But his girl Laura Lee, who desperately wants to fly, replaces the expert at the last minute. Now Brown wins the race but he doesn’t know how to land! SPOILER ALERT: They parachute out and become a couple.


Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)

Joe E. Brown plays the only decent player on his college football team. They lose every game and the coach is about to get fired. Joe essentially prostitutes the coach’s beautiful daughter (Joan Bennett), getting her to flirt with top candidates to recruit from other teams. Each seduction scene is a comic opportunity for Brown. In one he does his drunk routine. In another he wrestles with a bear. Of course they wind up with a great team, every member of which is in love with the same girl.  But the night before the big game they figure it out. They all pretend to fight for her until she starts to cry and they call her on it. She tells them the truth and is contrite. They forgive her and go on to win the big game, which is played pretty straight.


Broadminded (1931) 

Insane! Another really good one, again directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by Kalmar and Ruby, this time in their full-on crazy vein. It opens on a party at a mansion where everyone is dressed like a baby. The party is raided by the cops. Its clear Brown is a wild party hound. The next day his uncle assigns him to take care of his cousin Jack (played by William Collier Jr. ) and keep him out of trouble! Their instructions are to get out of New York and no gambling, carousing or women. They head to California, driving cross country and become embroiled in a feud with Bela Lugosi at a diner. He steals their car and becomes their bitter enemy. Two girls in a car pick them up and bring them the rest of the way. They also run into Thelma Todd, an actress he knew in New York. It turns out with she’s with Lugosi. Then the girl Jack left in NY shows up. So now both guys are juggling two girls. Todd pretends to be the other girl so he can get some letters from the jilted bride. Then they are caught by their girls and Lugosi . They are in hot water awhile but then it gets sorted out and they wind up with the new girls. Hey, what the hell — one’s just as good as another, I guess?


Sit Tight (1931)

Brown teams up with Winnie Lightner again. She runs a gym. Brown works there. Excellent, hilariously gratuitous Pre-Code bathing scenes! The two are always bickering. He professes love. She had been married to a wrestler. Meanwhile a young man comes their way (a young businessman who had been slated to marry a client at the gym) and he is a natural wrestler. Brown becomes his coach. He of course gets stuck elsewhere so Brown has to wrestle on his behalf until the real wrestler can get there. Quite funny.


Local Boy Makes Good  (1931)

Brown plays a four-eyed college nerd, a botanist who has a knack for running really fast. He writes bragging letters to the most popular girl in school, never intending to mail them, bragging about his prowess as a fraternity brother and track star. His maid mails a letter so now he must masquerade. He joins the track team, and the coach is impressed with his skill. In time he and another girl (Dorothy Lee) who loves him for himself fall in love. The fancy girl is a psych major, she helps him out (Pre-Code sex analysis). In the end of course, Brown wins the big race (after a drink of alcohol gives him enough confidence).


You Said a Mouthful (1932) 

Joe is a lowly shipping clerk who has invented a bathing suit that will not sink in the water. The fact that he has hydrophobia may have something to do with his motivation. He quits his job when he learns he has inherited a fortune from his rich aunt, learning too late that the entire estate (when all the accounting is done) consists of a couple of bucks – and Farina. (A brief, racist moment when he learns the truth about THAT…but it rapidly becomes a buddy picture, with Farina as his combination adopted son, personal assistant and business manager). They go to the docks in search of work and are mistaken by a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers for a famous swimmer she is supposed to pick up for a long-distance swim on a resort island (just go with it). He needs to beat out a rival in order to win the girl (Rogers) who, of course only goes for swimmers. The rest pans out according to the Joe E. Brown formula.


Fireman, Save My Child (1932)

Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, 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.


The Tenderfoot (1933)

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


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. 


Elmer the Great (1933)

Elmer the Great is part of Brown’s so-called Baseball Trilogy. This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player from rural Indiana. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end. One of his best comedies, with a bast that includes Sterling Holloway, Douglas Dumbrille, Frank McHugh, J. Carrol Naish, George Chandler and Gale Gordon.

E5NWH3 A VERY HONORABLE GUY, US lobbycard, from left: Alice White, Joe E. Brown, 1934

A Very Honorable Guy  (1934)  

Brown is miscast in this one, and it has an uncharacteristic plot, with a very urban milieu rather than his usual rural one. It’s much more serious and much less silly that his usual fare. In this one he plays an upstanding guy, but he has a gambling problem and is in debt to gangsters. Alice White is his girlfriend. Irene Franklin is her mother, Toodles. He sells his body to science, with the promise to deliver in 30 days. In the meantime, he wins the lottery. He tries to go back on his deal, but the doctor, who wants his girlfriend for himself, won’t let him go home. Brown and the girl skip to the country but the doctor follows, intending to poison him. The pair manage to escape and retire to the proverbial chicken farm.


The Circus Clown (1934) 

Written by Kalmar and Ruby. Brown goes back to his circus roots, playing an acrobat here. He plays two roles: both a young man and his own father. The father was in the circus, but doesn’t want the son to follow in his footsteps. He wants him to stay on the farm. But the son to go in the circus, so the father finally caves in. The boy joins a show, and falls in love with a beautiful woman – who turns out to be a female impersonator! (It’s a practical joke—everyone is on it, encourage him, etc). Meanwhile yet another woman is having an affair behind the back of her knife thrower husband Ajax, and sets him up to deflect attention. Meanwhile, there is a THIRD woman who really loves him and whose little boy Brown really gets along with. Brown’s character is a superman of the circus. He has every conceivable  circus skill but management wont give him a chance,  they just make him do all the menial chores. Then the manager makes him be the target for Ajax’s knife throwing routine just at the moment when Ajax is ready to kill him.  Brown is like a Holy Fool in the film — everybody’s savior. The girl he’s interested in’s brother (a former drunk) rejoins the show as trapeze artist. Brown proves himself on trapeze. Then when guy is taking a nip, he takes the booze from him so people wont suspect him, and gets drunk. He goes and makes a pass at the female impersonator and learns the truth. And then the manager sees him drunk, spoiling his contract. Fired. Goes back to circus, finds brother drunk again, goes on for him in clown make-up and saves the day.


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.


Bright Lights (1935)

A semi-musical with a musical comedy setting. Brown and Ann Dvorak are a burlesque couple, the stars of their own traveling troupe. Brown’s drunk bit is hilarious, culled from classic stage routines. Similar in structure to Chaplin’s A Night in an English Music Hall but with a lot of jokes I recognize from the burlesque canon. The plot is the usual melodrama, the couple nearly splitting when an heiress falls fro Brown. Directed by Busby Berkeley. 


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Brown is well-cast as Flute (and, thus, Thisby)  in Warner Bros.’ all-star adaptation of the Shakespeare classic; James Cagney as Bottom, less so. Directed by the one and only Max Reinhardt. 


Alibi Ike (1935)

Based on a short story written by Ring Lardner. Brown as a terrific bush-league pitcher who joins the Chicago Cubs (coached by William Frawley). His nickname comes from his crazy excuses for foibles like lateness and irresponsibility. A very young Olivia de Havilland, in one of her first roles, plays his exceedingly fetching love interest. The main theme  is that he insists he has no time for women but he totally falls for de Havilland – -and the other guys in the club keep razzing him and trying to catch him out. Then some crooks purporting to be the “Young Men’s High Ideals Club” want him to throw the game. The couple are about to get married but then she hears him boasting to the guys that he doesn’t really want to, he’s just doing it because he feels sorry for her. She leaves town in a huff.  Unhappy about it, Ike loses a game. The team management is suspicious that he threw it.  Being Alibi Ike, he claims that he was alright, so that makes them even more suspicious. Then the crooks hand him money—they think they threw it too. He is fired from the team. Then they relent but now he’s mad and won’t come back. He wants to get his girl back. But he has to play again so people won’t think he’s crooked. Meanwhile the criminals think he’s going to throw another game. Learning that he really doesn’t mean to, they kidnap him. He escapes, and goes to his usual crazy lengths to make it to the field and win the big game. A funny one, and a big hit with audiences in 1935.


Polo Joe (1936)

Brown’s character returns from ten years abroad in China and visit his rich aunt. He is allergic to horses, sneezes whenever they’re near. There are several bits where he speaks and sings in “Chinese”, much as Lloyd does in The Cat’s Pawreleased two years earlier. He is forced to play polo when the crowd of the girl he loves gets wind of his father’s polo playing reputation. It’s pretty typical and predictable, with all the usual gags about riding, getting kicked by hooves, etc. Decline is in evidence. We are heading toward the Boring Years here for sure.


Earthworm Tractors (1936)

Comedy with a caterpillar. 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.


Riding on Air (1937)

Elmer (Brown) is a local reporter in Wisconsin (and Chicago correspondent) who wins money in a radio contest. Guy Kibbee is a flim-flam man who swindles him out of his prize money (he thinks), forming a company to produce remote control operated airplanes (Elmer is also an inventor). He has a local rival from a rival paper. They compete to solve a murder and win girl. He also got photos of the swindler to his Chicago paper. He is recognized and arrested. Now whole town is up in arms. They are also after Brown. Then a bunch of business with airplanes and radium? Gangsters shoot machine guns at him. The usual happy/sappy ending. Directed by Eddie Sedgwick. 


When’s Your Birthday (1937)

This one is funny! Brown’s character is studying astrology. He boxes (and loses) at first to raise money for an astrology school. He wants to marry a girl (whose parents are Edgar Kennedy and Maude Eburne and maid is Margaret Hamilton). Having lost his job at a bank, he becomes a waiter at a nightclub. Gangsters learn he knows astrology and want him to pick winning racehorses. To escape them he goes in drag as a French girl.   He gets a job as a carnival fortune teller and gets a new girlfriend. Then he is arrested for telling fortunes without a licence. A judge (whom he’d met earlier) frees him and sets him up in a good thing, working high society. He is working at a party and runs into his former fiancé and her parents, who now accept him because he is socially prominent. Now he is depressed because his new girlfriend dumped him. Meanwhile guy is in financial trouble and wants him to box against a guy because the stars are right and he’s sure to make money by betting on him. Climax is the obligatory funny boxing match.


Flirting with Fate (1937)

A “western” comedy set in contemporary times. Mildly funny, very typical, by-the-numbers comedy. Brown is the leader of a troupe of showfolk travelling through South America (he transports them in back of his car with an automobile trailer). Leo Carillo is the leader of a bunch of horse back bandittos! The slight plot has the troupe starving, then learning that they’ve gotten a job in New York. (all but Brown, whose act has gotten “stale”). The troupe cant afford to get there, anyway. So Brown tries to commit suicide for the insurance money to get his pals to NY.


Fit For a King (1937)

Typical Brown fodder. He’s a go-get-em wanna-be reporter who lucks into a plum assignment covering an Archduke and the surrounding intrigues (assassination attempts). A funny scene with him in brig on ship during storm…very Keatonesque, with the tossing and turning. Other business with him in disguise in drag as a housemaid. He falls in love with girl who becomes queen (without knowing who she is). Reminds me a bit of Douglas Fairbanks’ plots.


The Gladiator (1938)

Joe E. Brown steals Harold Lloyd’s act, perhaps even more than usual here. This is essentially The Freshman, mixed with the upcoming The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Brown starts out cheering up kids in a hospital with his funny voices. Then he wins a large cash prize in a radio contest and uses it to return to the college he left 12 years ago. A pretty girl encourages him to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by going out for the football team. Lots of the usual “getting creamed in football” gags. It’s kind of marred by the college kids laughing at him no matter what he does. There’s a funny gag of him having a bunch of a scientists’ ants in his back pocket. Then a scientist makes a potion that increases strength to superhuman proportions. Hilarious visual gags as Brown flies and leaps over other players. To make dough he then becomes a wrestler. Then…the potion wears off.  Directed by Eddie Sedgwick.


Wide Open Faces (1938) 

Brown costars with Jane Wyman, Alison Skipworth, and Lyda Roberti. A crook tricks soda jerk Brown into taking him to an abandoned inn, where he hides $100,000 in stolen loot. The cops catch the crook first. Brown has to protect the girl who has inherited the hotel and her grandmother when other crooks descend on the inn to find  the loot. It’s pretty boring. Not nearly as good as his early comedies, although he does have a really funny dance routine


$1,000 a Touchdown (1939)

Brown and Martha Raye play a couple who inherit a failing college. In order to make a go of it, they offer $1,000 to any of their football players who can score a touchdown. Doesn’t sound very cost effective! The cast also includes the great Eric Blore and the fetching Susan Hayward.


As I said, there are many films in the Brownian canon I still haven’t seen. The baseball comedies  Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935) are my priorities. Brown continued to make films at this frantic pace (several films a year) through 1944, when he took time off to work in the U.S.O. After that, his appearances in films were sporadic, mostly in supporting roles like Cap’n Andy in Show Boat (1951), a Stationmaster in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Osgood Fielding III in Some Like it Hot (1959), a Union Official in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and the Cemetery Keeper in the AIP classic The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

Ironically — Brown’s casting in Some Like it Hot, had to do with a bit of a wink to the early studio days (being set in the jazz and all), strongly suggested by the audience’s association of Brown with his time as a comedy star. By my day, people ONLY knew him from Some Like it Hot, and when I do my annual post about him, about a hundred people respond “Nobody’s perfect!” — which is like the sound of fingernails on chalkboard. The guy made like 50 movies. He said more than one line in one film with that big mouth of his.

For more on comedy film hsitory 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 etc etc etc


A History of the Comedy Western #2: 1930s-40s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , on June 30, 2015 by travsd

This is part two of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here. 


The Fighting Parson (1930)

A Harry Langdon short for Hal Roach. A western town is expecting one “Fighting Parson” to arrive on a stage coach to help clean up their town. Coincidentally, traveling musician Harry arrives on an empty coach (it was robbed) so they all assume it’s him.  This being one of Langdon’s first talkies, it showcases many of his old vaudeville skills we didn’t get to hear in the silents, e.g., he plays and sings “Frankie and Johnny” on banjo  and he does a dance.  And despite the fact that he is not really the Fighting Parson, he does manage to clean up the town.


Girl Crazy (1932)

Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, based on a Broadway show but altered considerably. (I toyed with including their first vehicle Rio Rita here as well, but its Mexican setting was contemporary and mostly non-comical; the boys carried the comical sub-plot. Comic relief in westerns is a whole ‘nother post).

Girl Crazy has a contemporary setting as well, but the western and comedy elements are merged, thus it qualifies. It is set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. The story was later remade in a very different version 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. HONORABLE MENTION: Wheeler and Woolsey’s movie Diplomaniacs released in 1933, has a first act set on an Indian reservation, but the film is more a political satire than a comedy western.


Make Me a Star (1932)

The highlight of this adaptation of Merton of the Movies is a “movie within the movie” , a hilarious western parody starring Stuart Erwin — who is deceived by Joan Blondell and Sam Hardy into thinking he is appearing in a straight western. Ben Turpin as his co-star should have been the big tip-off!


The Gold Ghost (1934)

A Buster Keaton short for Educational.  And we fudge a little to include this — it’s actually in the “ghost town” subgenre, a sort of hybrid of comedy western and spook comedy. Buster is a rich playboy whose father wants him to marry a certain girl. The girl hates him and loves his rival. Buster is depressed and goes for a ride in car. He winds up in  the Nevada desert (he had started in Massachusetts). He finds himself in a ghost town called Vulture City, which has a real vulture!. He doesn’t notice it’s empty at first. He tries to check in to an abandoned hotel, and idly puts sheriff badge and gun on. Meanwhile a wanted gangster crashes his airplane nearby. Meanwhile Buster goes into the saloon, where the player piano starts to play. He encounters a ghost dance hall girl and a ghost outlaw. Then, some nearby prospectors strike gold. The town is suddenly over run with living humans and Buster tussles with some crooks who mistake him for an actual sheriff.


Goin’ to Town (1935)

Saloon singer Mae West inherits an enormous ranch from her husband (murdered by rustlers on their wedding day) that turns out to have oil on it. The first few scenes constitute the bulk of the “western” element, from here it shifts to a melodrama comedy about an oil fortune, Argentine aristocrats and Mae’s efforts to fit in with cultured sells on Long Island. But the opening beats — definitely western!


Horse Collars (1935)

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Three Stooges hold the record for the most comedy westerns. I included as many as I could find in this and the next post. If I missed any please let me know! In this one they play three detectives (naturally all dressed in Holmesian deerstalkers) who come west to help young Nell retrieve the stolen deed to her ranch. They have a secret weapon (of sorts). Curly goes berzerk whenever he sees a mouse. Only cheese will calm him down, thus the refrain “Moe! Larry! The Cheese!”. This is a bit they would use in several of their films.


Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936)

See? What’d I tell ya? The Three Stooges are a trio of cheating gamblers, who must flee Lobo City after Curly is caught using a shoe magnet to control a roulette wheel. They paddle out to the woods in sped-up canoes and disguise themselves as Indians. Unfortunately, Curly has chosen to dress as a squaw, which proves most inconvenient when a roughneck comes to their camp and falls in love with him. The two are all set to be married when Curly’s wig slips and they are on the run again. In the end, they think they have escaped — but it turns out they have locked themselves into the town jail.


Goofs and Saddles (1937)

In this one, the Three Stooges play Buffalo Bilious (Curly), Wild Bill Hiccup (Moe) and Just Plain Bill (Larry), three undercover scouts for the US cavalry sent out to foil a bunch of cattle rustlers. (What does the army care about rustlers? Never mind, just go with it). When their carrier pigeon is intercepted and their identities revealed, they flee on a covered wagon. But the bad guys catch up to them and a shoot-out ensues. Fortunately, Curly creates a makeshift gatling gun out of a meat grinder, and the rustlers are soon dispatched.


Way Out West (1937)

Laurel and Hardy classic; one of the best known of the comedy western genre. This charming genre spoof has Stan and Olllie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn).

The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalon Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them.

Poster - Destry Rides Again (1939)_01

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Another great screenplay template; one of the most magical of all Hollywood films. Seems very much informed by screwball comedy, feels very Capraesque (it was directed by George Marshall). A comedy western with a serious plot (which it takes seriously) in an age when westerns weren’t very serious! Screwball/Capra feeling reinforced by the cast: Jimmy Stewart (not yet identified with westerns) and a bunch of familiar comical character actors (I’m looking at you, Mischa Auer!)

The fictional town of Bottleneck is ridiculously wild at the outset. Complete chaos: Sodom and Gomorrah. Marlene Dietrich is “Frenchy” the dance hall girl. She sings songs with witty lyrics by Frank Loesser: “Little Joe”, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” and others. In the opening scene, there’s a poker game. A farmer bets his whole farm and then frenchy abets a cheat, spilling coffee in his lap so they can switch cards on him. The guy tells the sheriff. The sheriff confronts the guys and gets killed. The mayor, a tobacco chewing crook, is in the pocket of the gang. He appoints the town drunk (a former deputy) as sheriff as a patsy (Charles Winninger). He decides to fool them by doing a good job, so he sends for the son of his old sheriff, a man who has the reputation of cleaning up Tombstone: Destry (Stewart).

When Destry arrives he makes a terrible impression: holding a canary cage and a parasol for a lady, telling folksy stories. One of the most awesome scenes ever: when he disarms the gang leader (Brian Donlevy) coolly by telling him he doesn’t carry guns. confuses him, even scares him for a minute, seems like a standoff. Their laughter is nervous at first, but Destry becomes a laughing stock nonetheless. At first he seems a sort of Holy Fool, like Dostoievski’s The Idiot. Destry is Christ-like, peaceful, pacifistic, gentle, and unafraid to seem ridiculous, because he is so secure in the knowledge that his way is right.

James Stewart - destry rides again - & Marlene Dietrich

But the storytellers don’t follow through on this idea (I’m not sure it’s ever really been done). As in Shane, High Noon, Angel and the Badman, Liberty Valance, etc. we quickly revert to the lesson that guns are the only way to get the job done. After assuring the sheriff that he is serious about staying here and helping, no matter what anyone thinks about him, we learn his secret. Out on the street, some ruffians are firing off their guns. Destry borrows their pistols for a second and demonstrates his aim, which terrifies them into submission. The main thrust of the story has to do with the principle guy snatching everyone’s farms so that he can charge cattlemen fees for passing through his property. Destry sets about foiling this plot, but more importantly wants to get to the bottom of the sheriff’s murder. When they find the body of the sheriff, he has what he wants, and sends for a federal judge so a proper trial can happen. There is a big shootout between the good guys and the bad guys, with the comical arrival of the women armed with kitchen and farm implements to stop the shooting. The head of the crooks gets shot. So does Frenchy, which is most convenient. She has been Destry’s love interest, with much sexual tension, and she begins to help him towards the end. But it wouldn’t be fitting for him to wind up with a “bad woman”. She is a sort of a “holy whore” worthy of Eugene O’Neill, and dies a martyr’s death. In the end, Destry will wind up with the sweet, wholesome girl he met on the stagecoach coming in. The town is now peaceful and law-abiding.


Maisie (1939)

The first in the film series with Ann Sothern as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl Maisie. This one has a contemporary western setting: Maisie has to blow town quick and goes to take a job performing out west. When she gets there the job has folded, so she is stranded and has to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch and tries to make a play for Young. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident, and they kiss and plan to marry. This purportedly light comedy eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch!


Yes, We Have No Bonanza (1939)

A hilarious Three Stooges comedy, with the trio as singing waiters in a saloon, who devise a plot to marry three cowgirls by prospecting for gold. They actually find some, but it turns out to be the buried stash of some bank robbers. In one memorable scene, they think their mule “Yorick” has eaten all the dynamite.

Point Those Things at Your Producers

Go West (1940)

I am a Marx Brothers fan but unfortunately  this has to be rated as their worst film. They are fish out of water, and that might be fine in a comedy, but for the fact that the script and direction are all stinkeroo. It’s enlivened somewhat towards the end by some uncharacteristic physical gags devised by Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin, but it’s too little, too late. For my extended rant on the sins of this picture, go here. 


My Little Chickadee (1940)

While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends (W.C. Fields and Mae West), the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications(read much more about it here). In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meekmerely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day. Read my full post on the film here. 


Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)

Fred Allen challenges Jack Benny (playing himself) to prove all his boasting on radio show about his adventures on his Nevada ranch, so he sets out to do so, taking his cast (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson“, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Andy Devine) with him.  This comedy was one of the top ten box office hits of 1940.


The Westerner (1940)

Absolutely magic, a perfect movie directed by William Wyler. It deserves to be revered as a classic but somehow has fallen by the wayside. It’s more of a western comedy/ melodrama but there is a tone to it that makes me want to include it here, and both Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan are playing their “A” game, rocking their symbolically freighted characters, with much comedy resulting.  Brennan won best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal as Judge Roy Bean.  This is one of the great characters and characterizations in all Hollywood cinema, Brennan’s best work. He has created a human being, who actually seems to exist independent of the cinematic machinery. His work is that thorough: funny, tragic, full of detail and just simply HIM. Gary Cooper is also wonderfully cast as a drifter accidentally arrested on a charge of horse stealing, who is dragged into hanging judge Bean’s saloon/courtroom. He talks his way out of his pickle by claiming to know actress Lillie Langtry (Bean’s obsession) personally. Along the way he sort of gets to be Bean’s friend, gradually trying to get him to be less favoritistic toward the cattlemen in their war with farmers. In the end, though, Bean, a stubborn, one-track-mind type of character, orchestrates a bloody violent war against the farmers, burning down all their crops and houses and killing people. The farm girl Cooper loves associates him with Bean, so he has to take action. He rides to the city where Bean is going to see Langtry perform (he has bought up every ticket), and catches him there. A shootout in the theater. Bean’s last vision is of Langtry. Cooper goes back, marries the girl, and they start again.


Gold Rush Maisie (1940)

The third in Ann Sothern’s series. Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a show date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks,  then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.


Rockin’ Thru the Rockies (1940)

The Three Stooges plays frontier guides who are leading an all female performing troupe named Nell’s Belles through the Rockies to their date in San Francisco. They are menaced by Indians, but they have also lost their horses so they are forced to spend the night in a cabin and are snowed in, where they nearly starve because a bear has run off with their food. Sound bleak? Well there is a section of the film where Curly annoys Moe by barking like a dog in his sleep.


Go West, Young Lady (1941)

Penny Singleton of Blondie fame is a gal from back East named “Bill” who shoots as well as any man. Ann Miller is Lola, the jealous dance hall girl. Glenn Ford is the new sheriff, caught between these two hellcats, and having to clean up the town besides.


Ride ’em Cowboy (1942)

Abbott and Costello are a couple of vendors at a Long Island rodeo and accidentally hide out in a train car…bound for the far west! En route, Costello accidentally shoots an arrow into a teepee, which the local Indians interpret as a proposal of marriage…to (surprise) a homely squaw. Couldn’t see that coming! It’s practically it’s own subgenre. Ugly guy pursued by ugly lady — and we only notice how ugly the lady is! At any rate these antics must vie with an exceedingly boring main plot concerning Dick Foran as a lying writer of western novels, and his boring efforts to land a boring cowgirl (Anne Gwynne). This kind of crap mars every single one of Abbott and Costello’s movies, but it’s like pulling teeth to get any classic comedy fan to admit their movies all suck. On the bright side, this movie does feature Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket, A Tasket”, and that’s the sort of thing that make a movie worth watching for about five minutes.


Cactus Makes Perfect (1942)

The Three Stooges acquire a map to a lost gold mine out west. On the way they have a run in with prospectors (Vernon Dent and Ernie Adams) with whom they eventually have a battle with lit sticks of dynamite. The Stooges are presumably brothers in this film; their mother is played by (male) character actor Monte Collins. 


Phony Express (1943)

Sheriff Snub Pollard needs help ridding the town of Peaceful Gulch of its criminals. He brings in the Three Stooges. The bank gets robbed from right under their noses (right behind their backs actually) by the town’s main culprit (Bud Jamison). But they eventually recover the loot.


Belle of the Yukon (1944)

I hope it won’t be considered inflammatory if I call this movie an amazing, gorgeous exercise in gay kitsch. It’s sort of more a musical comedy than a western. It’s set at a saloon in Alaska during the gold rush.  Charles Winninger owns the saloon, Dinah Shore is his charmless daughter who sings some boring songs. Randolph Scott is Honest John a gambler and con man. Gypsy Rose Lee, his dance hall girl girlfriend tries to reform him. The market for this film was definitely not men, at least not conventional ones. It even has a fashion show sequence. But the costume and set design is so over the top the film has to be watched, if just for that alone.


Girl Rush (1944)

Singularly weak comedy team Alan Carney and Wally Brown give their take on the comedy western. They are a couple of vaudeville performers in a San Francisco saloon. Frances Langford as a dance hall girl. There is a gold strike . They lose all their customers, so they head to the strike to try to make their own claim. They stop at a hotel and learn that the place is all men. One of them is a very young Robert Mitchum in one of his first film roles – he is the straight lead. The boys are dispatched to bring back all the dance hall girls as brides. Among the many problems is that the there is a faction of bad guys in the town who want to see it fail so the town will be all lawless. They solve the problem in one big final set piece….a bunch of men come back to town in drag. A bit goes on for awhile, and then the jig is up and then they brawl. The movie has all the obligatory comedy western bits: a hanging bit. a bear bit. a skunk bit. And SEVERAL gay bits. The end is a recap of the beginning, They do another number. Another strike, the house empties out again.

Poster - Along Came Jones_03

Along Came Jones (1945)

A terrific movie, written by Nunnally Johnson. Very similar in tone to screwball comedy. Gary Cooper is a dumb cowpoke; William Demarest his wisecracking buddy. They ride into a town and are mistaken for a ruthless robber (Dan Duryea) and his crazy uncle. A series of misunderstandings reinforce this impression, and it is helped along by Loretta Young who is Duryea’s girlfriend (although she’s fast losing taste for her nasty man, and is falling for Cooper). Cooper adapts a swagger, very comical. Soon everyone is pursuing the innocent Cooper: a posse, bounty hunters, and Duryea himself. At one point Demarest is shot and we fear a tragic ending, but he pulls through in the end. Cooper musters the courage for a duel with Duryea we know he will lose, but the girl bails him out, shooting Dureya through the forehead. Passionate kiss at the end. Another unjustly forgotten classic!


Rockin’ in the Rockies (1945)

The Three Stooges are ALMOST the stars of this feature, which seems like an attempt to craft a full-length vehicle for the team more like those enjoyed by the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. Moe “helps” his cousin (Jay Kirby) run a ranch; Larry and Curly are a couple of drifters with gambling winnings. They and some pretty girls (for some reason) make a hash of the cousin’s ranch as they try to prospect for gold and make it to Broadway (just go with it). Meanwhile I guess we’re also supposed to care what happens to the cousin and his ranch.

Photo from Feet of Mud:

Photo from Feet of Mud:

Pistol Packin’ Nitwits (1945)

Columbia short starring El Brendel, Harry Langdon and Christine McIntyre. Remade as the Three Stooges’ Out West almost immediately thereafter.


The Three Troubledoers (1946)

The Three Stooges are three drifting cowboys who arrive in the town of Deadman’s Gulch. Curly is elected sheriff when the boys foil one Badlands Blackie from his attempts to coerce the lovely Christine McIntyre into marrying him. She vows she’ll marry Curly if they rid the town of Blackie. The Stooges do — but her father vows he’ll die before he allows her to marry Curly either. They oblige by throwing a lit stick of dynamite at him.


Out West (1947)

Re-make of Pistol Packin’ Nitwits, starring the Three Stooges. Shemp has now replaced Curly in the team. When a doctor (Vernon Dent) informs him he has an enlarged vein, he decides to go west for his health, bringing Larry and Moe with him. When he arrives at a western town he informs a local crook named “Doc” about his “large vein” and is misinterpreted to mean he possesses a vein of gold. Learning the man is a crook, the team schemes to poison him with a deadly potion. As in all films of this type, the guy doesn’t get poisoned, he just wants a glass of water — it’s as though he has eaten a jalapeno. meanwhile Larry gets locked up in the basement, and the team rescues him from the bad guys.


Bowery Buckaroos (1947)

A Bowery Boys comedy. The fact that Sach (Huntz Hall) is reading a western comic at the top of the film should be the tip-off that all that follows will be a dream — but me, I can be a little slow on the up-take. While the guys are sitting around the soda shop Louie (Bernard Gorcey) sings a western song called “Louie the Lout” and the suddenly a sheriff rides in on a horse and says that Louie is wanted for a murder committed 20 years ago. The guys decide to head west to clear his name. It’s a good thing this was made by Monogram Pictures – they’re all set up to turn this into a Monogram western! The plot all has to with a gold map etc. They draw the map (which is on Louie’s back) onto Sach’s back. This is the last of the Bowery Boys films to feature Bobby Jordan who got tired of having only a half a dozen lines per movie.


The Paleface (1948)

Bob Hope classic directed by Norman McLeod. Hope’s cowardly, lecherous character was never in finer form than in this film; when I last saw it a few years ago I don’t think I ever once stopped laughing during the entire movie. The film has Jane Russell as Calamity Jane, working undercover for the federal government to catch a gang of gunrunners to the Indians. She hooks up with cowardly frontier dentist Hope and masquerades as his wife, building up a reputation for him as a tough, unbeatable fighter. As in the best Hope vehicles, he rises to the occasion in the end—with the predictable climax with the two of them tied to burning stakes.

The Native Americans, sadly, are little more than plot points however, the usual obstacles to be overcome…though on the plus side there are a couple of real Native Americans in the cast, Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody (okay so Cody was fake, but the producers THOUGHT he was real!): 


The Dude Goes West (1948)

An innocuous family comedy. Not too funny and it doesn’t have much of a plot. Seems like an attempt to craft the same kind of vehicle for Eddie Albert, that Hollywood frequently made with Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Red Skelton. But Albert’s not as funny as those guys. He plays a gunsmith from Brooklyn who goes west to make his fortune. He falls for a girl and proves to be a terrific marksman. He helps her protect a deed to a mine. Indians are encountered.


 Two Guys from Texas (1948)

One of many sequels to Two Guys from Milwaukee starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, very much in the vein of Hope and Crosby pictures. In this one, the boys’ car breaks down in the desert, causing them to work at a local dude ranch. When their car is stolen as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, they must clear their names. The picture also features Dorothy Malone, Forest Tucker and Fred Clark.


The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

We give this one honorable mention. It’s a serious John Wayne western, but it co-stars Oliver Hardy!  Hardy is predictably terrific as the sidekick, a job he took reluctantly while Stan Laurel was laid up with an injury. (There was actually a kind tradition of casting former silent comedians as western sidekicks in the studio era: Al St. John and Slim Summerville among them) It’s plain from his performance that Hardy was always above all what he considered himself — an actor (as opposed to a clown). And there’s a difference. Groucho Marx, for example, was a terrible actor. Hardy is so great, it’s a pity he didn’t do much more stuff like this. To make it doubly interesting, Wayne is the dominant partner here. Hardy is the Sancho Panza part, the fool, the Laurel. It’s surreal, and most rewarding, to see Hardy out of his usual context. And the other plus is that it had been a decade since Hardy’s last good movie, and five years since his last picture with Laurel…just one last gasp (not including the egregious Utopia). And does he fall off his horse? What do you think? Everyone ought to see this. Read more about it here.


The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949)

Hilarious and criminally underrated Preston Sturges comedy western, shot in color.  It stars Betty Grable, in the best performance I’ve seen her give. In the film she seems as good as Betty Hutton, whom the part really seems written for (she’d earlier starred in Sturges’s masterpiece The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The Beautiful Blonde essentially has the plot of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, with a gender switch. A dance hall girl (Grable) gets into trouble (she keeps shooting the same judge in the butt) so she as to flee. She and her friend (Olga San Juan) arrive at a distant town and assumes the role of a schoolteacher. Much hilarity! Especially with two retarded schoolboys, one of whom is Sterling Holloway. Her love interest is bad boy Cesar Romero. She is eventually returned to her town, but up to her old trouble again. Much smarter and satirical than your average comedy western (Sturges’s stereotype defying treatment of San Juan is just one example). And it’s a great showcase for his comedy chops, being as it is a parody. Sturges’s work after the mid 40s is almost always written off. This movie proves the injustice of that assessment.

For part three of this series go here. 

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Cliff Edwards, a.k.a “Ukulele Ike”, a.k.a. “Jiminy Cricket”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2009 by travsd

Best known today as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney film Pinnochio,  Cliff Edwards (June 14, 1895 – July 17, 1971) probably gained his widest popularity on radio.

He was also big in vaudeville, films, and had a successful recording career. As the name implies, he accompanied himself on the uke. He entered vaudeville in the late teens. In 1920, he paired briefly with singer/dancer Pierre Keegan in an act called “Jazz As Is”. He cut his first record in 1922. His pleasant, smooth voice with its folksy edge made quite a hit, and by 1924, he was playing the Palace. Broadway shows included Mimic World of 1921Lady Be Good (1924), and numerous others.

His film career was launched with  The Hollywood Revue of 1929 wherein first made popular the song “Singin’ in the Rain”.  More than 80 films followed, including several co-starring vehicles with Buster Keaton. In clips, one who expects to find a Burl Ives-looking character based on his voice, will be surprised to see a young man with a Rudy Vallee like appeal.

In 1932, he launched his first radio show. In 1949, he launched two different TV shows on CBS: The Cliff Edwards Show and The 54th Street Revue. He died in 1971.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike a.k.a Jiminy Cricketconsult 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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