Tomorrow morning on Turner Classic Movies: Two somewhat idiosyncratic comedies from the depths of the Great Depression!
7:00am (EST) : Sidewalks of New York (1931)
This movie was Keaton’s own least favorite of his MGM features. The plot is very similar to Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake and casts Keaton as a millionaire slumlord who falls for a poor girl (Anita Page). To win her heart he spends his time and resources improving the neighborhood, and trying to straighten out a gang of roughneck boys who brawl and get in trouble all day. This kind of sentimental fare worked for Spencer Tracy, James Cagney or Bing Crosby. Keaton was a fish out of water. His sidekick in the film, as in many of his pre-Durante features, was Cliff Edwards.
There’s nothing wrong per se with this bit with Keaton having a hard time carving a duck, but it does illustrate the clashing styles of director Jules White and Keaton that would emerge in a more sustained way when Keaton spent some time at Columbia in the late 30s and early 40s. The bird carving business would have been a terrific bit for Curly Howard, who would have increasingly gotten more frustrated, made faces, slapped his forehead, whined and grunted as the duck became more and more intractable. Keaton’s thing however is that he is unflappable. Most of the carving business doesn’t really work, no matter how fine a physical comedian Keaton is. It’s just wrong for him. The ultimate solution, when Keaton merely hands the bird over to a visiting policeman, seems much more characteristic.
8:30am (EST): Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933)
Songs by Rodgers and Hart! And a book by S.N. Behrman! From a Ben Hecht idea!
In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: they meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York. Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend. She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!
For more on 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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of 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.