Archive for comedian

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on 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. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2017 by travsd

The foregoing is adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Douglas Fairbanks’ early career is today overshadowed by his later reputation as a swashbuckling adventure hero. Largely forgotten is the fact that his first five years upon the screen (roughly a quarter of his film career), were spent as a light comedian. And as such he was a huge star, the third most popular screen actor in the country after Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. When he collaborated with those two and Griffith to found United Artists in 1919, he did so as a comedy star; his conversion to historical costume adventures was still a couple of years away. If he had never made a swashbuckling picture, Fairbanks would still have been significant in the history of Hollywood cinema on the strength of this first leg –the comedy stretch — of his career alone. I concur with Gerald Mast who wrote in The Comic Mind that any history of silent comedy is incomplete without him.

It was Fairbanks and his creative team who essentially solved the problem of how to take comedians into features. These folks form one of the most vital links in the Chain of Fools, yet are usually left out of silent comedy histories, mostly because Fairbanks, while both “physical” and a “comedian”, was not per se a “physical comedian”.  That is, while athletic, agile and acrobatic, he was more what we think of as a high comedian than a low one: upper class, charming, generally not clumsy or given to ungentlemanly scraps. He was good looking and, in the end, heroic. As a swashbuckler, he was the prototype of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, but as a comedian, also of Cary Grant, William Powell, and Ronald Colman. His comedy tended to be more sophisticated and dignified than that of the slapstick clowns. Any time the comedian is also the romantic lead as opposed to mere comic relief the lineage is bound to lead back to Fairbanks.

Already 32 by the time he joined D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts division of Triangle in 1915, Fairbanks had been acting on the stage since he was a teenager, with a couple of brief detours into the business world, life experience that would greatly impact his stage personality. By the mid-teens he was a well-known light comic actor who’d been featured in several hits on Broadway and had toured big time vaudeville in comedy sketches. George M. Cohan had even written a vehicle for him, Broadway Jones, but Cohan had liked the part so much he decided to play it himself.

Before even going into films Fairbanks was well on the way to forging his famous persona, and had begun incorporating his natural athleticism and gymnastic ability into his stage roles. Reliable accounts of Fairbanks’ childhood in Denver make him sound something close to what we now call hyperactive; he was forever jumping off of roofs and causing disruptions at school. As a young man, he became an early convert to what was then called “physical culture”. This was the age of Teddy Roosevelt’s gospel of “the Strenuous Life”, of Sandow the Strongman, of the seemingly invincible Harry Houdini. Fairbanks religiously spent time every day applying himself to self-improvement in the gymnasium.  He was unique in incorporating his athleticism into a stage character that in turn owed something to George M. Cohan’s image: lively, American, vigorous, kinetic. Whereas Cohan was somewhat urban, pushy and “street”, Fairbanks was every inch the All-American milk drinking WASP and somewhat aristocratic in mien, cloaking his upbringing in a broken home in the Wild and Woolly state of Colorado.

Not just light on his feet but light on his hands — a heartstopping handstand at the rim of the Grand Canyon in “Wild and Woolly”

One of the first things Fairbanks did upon arriving at Griffith’s studio was set up a makeshift gym of his own, allowing him to indulge in highly public workouts on the rings, the pommel horse, and so forth. The serious-minded Griffith reportedly had no use for this kind of cheeky showboating. Nor did he think much of Fairbanks, whom he felt had been foisted on him by the back office. Griffith’s opinion was that the vigorous upstart would be better off with the Mack Sennett division of Triangle, where he could leap and gambol to his heart’s content. Fairbanks found the concept insulting. He considered himself an actor, not a clown, backflips notwithstanding. The decision to remain in Griffith’s division was the correct one. By way of illustration:  in his very first film The Lamb (1915), Fairbanks does indeed take a pratfall within the first five minutes of the movie, absentmindedly leaning on a hedge as he talks to a girl and tumbling to the ground.  By contrast, in a Sennett comedy such events would happen within the first five seconds and then at five second intervals thereafter. That is the difference. Sennett didn’t care enough about story to devise a sustainable feature (he made 18 features; it’s a question how sustainable any of them were). The ideal length for a Sennett farce was 10-20 minutes, and even at that, some of them seem excessively long. Fairbanks was a Broadway star, he demanded film vehicles that would be comparable in scope and quality to his recent stage successes.

The Lamb was just that. An adaptation of his most recent Broadway hit The New Henrietta, it established the formula that would continue for the next several years: an effete but healthy and good-hearted rich boy from the Northeast is busy having a good time, but lacks a purpose, a mission. Then like the heroes of old, he is called and he ends up proving himself, usually in some more challenging milieu, most often the American West. In The Lamb, Fairbanks plays a young society fellow who must fight to keep the attention of his fiancé from straying to the virile chap from Arizona they have recently met.  In the end, he defeats a bloodthirsty band of Mexican cut-throats using a machine gun and his new jiu-jitsu skills. That’ll do it.

Fairbanks’ humor is an outgrowth of his personality and his unique attainments as an amateur gymnast. He is insanely likeable. In the films, you watch him charm the other actors even as he’s charming you. It’s a “gosh, gee whiz” sort of personality, mixed with the assertiveness we associate with old-fashioned salesmanship. In theory, it may sound off-putting. In practice, one is disarmed. Fairbanks’ bonhomie is genuine. One gets a real sense of him being an American’s idea of a gentleman, which might best be described as the opposite of the European idea. The American conception is not a matter of birth or class, but of manners – someone who is absolutely nice and respectful to everyone he meets no matter who they are, rich, poor, black or white. And Fairbanks embodies that in these films, even if, as in The Americano (1916), the black man is unfortunately played by a Caucasian in blackface. The key is that Fairbanks’ overwhelmingly cheerful, positive personality has physical manifestations. He literally jumps for joy, clicks his heels, turns handsprings. In American Aristocracy (1916) he is so energetic that he appears to have trouble restraining himself from humping a tent pole. And this is just in the early parts of his films. In the third act when he is busy saving the day, the dynamo kicks into overdrive. That’s when Fairbanks scurries up the facades of buildings, leaps across roofs, swings on tree branches, scales trellises and telephone poles. And he is really doing those things; it is not a stunt man. Fairbanks’ audiences were buying tickets to a true spectacle.

Defying gravity in “The Matrimaniac”

I mentioned Fairbanks’ creative team earlier. His public image benefitted from the input of many collaborators. One of the most frequent of his scenario writers, but by no means the only one, was Anita Loos, best known nowadays for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which she wrote a few years later. Loos had been writing for D.W. Griffith since 1912. One of Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriters, she had penned some of Griffith’s best known early films, including 1912’s The New York Hat (with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore) and the path-breaking 1912 urban crime film The Musketeers of Pig Alley (featuring Lillian Gish and Elmer Booth). At the moment she was writing the titles for Intolerance, but was only too happy to be part of the staff that would devise original vehicles for Fairbanks.

In His Picture in the Papers (1916), Loos would strike a new note that would become a major dimension of the Fairbanks idea for the next half dozen years: satire. In that movie, Fairbanks plays a decidedly meat-eating son of a vegetarian health food magnate. The young man is challenged by his father to bring in some positive publicity for their family-owned company, much as a tribal chieftain might instruct his heir apparent to prove himself by going to bag a wild boar. This was the age of Pulitzer and Hearst, mind you – Loos was identifying a brand new phenomenon that would only intensify with the advent of radio, television and the internet. Fairbanks’ persona lent itself very nicely to ironic nose-tweaking of American foibles. In many of his films, not just the ones penned by Loos, this would be an important ingredient in the mix.

A surprising number of variations could be rung on Fairbanks’ character. In Manhattan Madness (1916) he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home.) He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In The Habit of Happiness (1916) he is a privileged young man who preaches the gospel of laughter for health and wealth. He proves the efficacy of his doctrine by getting a girl, a job and the acceptance of his father by implementing his philosophy. (The next year, Fairbanks emulated his own character by releasing a self-help book called Laugh and Live).

In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Woolly (1917) he plays the son of a railroad magnate who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an old west charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.

Some of the films play somewhat more like fairy tale romances than comedies. Reaching for the Moon (1917), a full blown Loos satire, starts the trend. Fairbanks’ plays an overeager office boy who drives everyone crazy with his dreams of glory until the day he learns that he is a European prince and gets more of a taste of what real rulers face than he bargained for. Subsequent movies, however, lavish happy endings upon him without the didacticism. In The Americano he is a young mining engineer sent to a Central American country during a coup. In this one, he not only gets the girl and the job – but control of the army! In His Majesty, the American (1919) the character learns that he is the heir apparent to the throne of a troubled Eastern European country.  Just so we know that he’s an alright guy, though, he announces that he plans to run it like America. These pictures pave the way for the shift in emphasis in the twenties, when he will be taking on fare like Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad.

Seldom a climax without climbing: from “A Modern Musketeer”

The Fairbanks films are an interesting hybrid; comic in tone until the last act, when his character must come to the rescue in dead earnest. We are still wowed by his physical feats, but we are no longer laughing at him, we are rooting for him to accomplish his goals. This aspect of the Fairbanks formula would influence not only Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton but films down to modern times. (I am dating myself I guess by thinking of examples like Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop).

So it was Fairbanks as much as Chaplin who pioneered something like real story telling in the comedy film, providing a pathway for comedians like Harold Lloyd and many others to come.  Others who emulated Fairbanks included Douglas MacLean, Reginald Denny and Johnny Hines. Of these, only Lloyd made so lasting an impression in silents that his popularity has survived until the present day.

For much, much more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

Tom Lewis: Worked with the Greats

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by travsd

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Tom Lewis (Thomas Lewis McGuire, 1867-1927) was born on May 17. Originally from New Brunswick, NJ, he was a comedian who played both in vaudeville and on Broadway, and later in silent films. He was in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, and over a dozen other Broadway shows including The Passing Show of 1917, the original production of George S. Kaufman’s Helen of Troy, New York (1923), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924.

At the same time, he was a vaudeville staple. He was one of the fabled original ten to form the vaudeville union the White Rats.  Starting in 1912 he was teamed for a time with baseball player Turkey Mike Donlin in vaud. And he also played the Palace, the greatest vaudeville venue in the country.

Staring in 1920 he began appearing regularly in films, notably as Mr. Murphy in The Callahans and the Murphys with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (1927), and as the first mate in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.  

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

Doodles Weaver: A Kook in Multiple Media

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2017 by travsd

I discovered Doodles Weaver (1911-1983) by a path that might confound his long time fans. But then, his was a most confounding life and career. I noticed him in the 1971 low budget exploitation horror film The Zodiac Killer. He played a goofy neighbor, and like I often do, I semi-recognized him. I went, “That’s gotta be somebody! Who is that?” But remember the surroundings: this was a Grade Z cheapie of a movie; like a lot of similar low budget movies of the time, it literally looks like a home movie. 95% of the cast are amateur non-actors.

Weaver in “The Zodiac Killer”

Reasons why it’s odd to find him in such surroundings: 1) he was of wealthy family and very old American WASP stock; and 2) he wasn’t a nobody, he had a certain measure of mainstream fame.

And yet a reason why it wasn’t so odd to find him in this movie: he kind of showed up everywhere and did everything; this was true throughout his career.

Of his family: his full name was Winstead Sheffield Glenndenning Dixon Weaver. “Doodles” is one of those humiliating WASP nicknames. I’ve known Trips, Crickets, Corkys, Bunnys, etc. He was one of those. His older brother was Pat Weaver, President of NBC, and the creator of The Today Show, among much else. Pat’s daughter Sigourney Weaver achieved fame after Doodles had passed away.

Doodles went to Stanford, where he wrote for the campus humor magazine. In the ’30s, he seems to show up immediately on radio, without the usual early formative period in vaudeville and night clubs. This was probably through the help and influence of Pat, who was already producing Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight by the mid-30s. Doodle was a semi-regular guest on Rudy Vallee’s show and Kraft Music Hall. At the same time, he was getting bit parts in Hal Roach and Columbia comedies, supporting such comedians as Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. From the mid to late 1940s, he was a star of Spike Jones band and radio show, achieving even greater fame.

Spoke Jones, left, Weaver. center

1951 was probably the peak of his career, when he had his own television comedy variety show The Doodles Weaver Show, which made full use of Doodles’ mugging and face pulling abilities. It’s both anomalous and delightful. This educated, well-off man, whose sensibilities were so unpretentious and low-brow. During these same years he wrote for Mad magazine!

“A Day with Doodles”

He continued to be a frequent presence on tv after his show went off the air, on Spike Jones show, Batman, The Monkees. In 1965 he starred in a series of kiddie show segments called A Day with Doodles (1965). In 1966 he released a parody version of “Eleanor Rigby”!

And he continued to play bit parts in movies. I had seen him in films countless times prior to The Zodiac Killer, which is clearly why I recognized him. He played the hardware store owner in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He’s the boat operator in The Birds (1963). He’s in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) and Which Way to the Front (1970)! He’s in Kitten with a Whip (1964)!  He’s in William Castle’s The Spirit is Willing (1967). He’s in Bob Hope’s last movie Cancel My Reservation (1972)!

So how he wound up in The Zodiac Killer is both confusing and not confusing. On the one hand, he didn’t have to. He was famous and clearly had famous friends who were happy to showcase him. Did he lose a bet? Was he doing someone a favor? On the OTHER hand, he sort of did everything. His career was a bit of “throwing spaghetti at the wall.”

He’s still doing his usual sort of turns throughout the 70s. He’s in movies like Banjo Hackett (1976) and Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976). He’s on Starsky and Hutch and Fantasy Island. His last film was the independent science fiction film Earthbound (1981), starring Burl Ives.

Then, in 1983, Weaver’s sad and shocking death by suicide. Apparently despondent over ill health, he shot himself twice in the chest. His body was discovered by his son. It’s a Hollywood ending not out-of-step with the tone of The Zodiac Killer. 

The Hall of Plus-Sized Comedians

Posted in Comedians, Comedy with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by travsd

May 6 is apparently something called “No Diet Day”, which must mean, to my alarm and astonishment, that every other day is one on which we were supposed to have been dieting? I guess I blew that! At any rate, it seems a propitious time to celebrate the long line of plus-sized cinematic comedians. I have long observed that filmdom has always had at least one at any given time, as though we NEED the type somehow, our cinematic pantheon is somehow incomplete without at least one. This post takes the uncharacteristic (for me) form of a listicle, and please note that it is pretty narrowly focused on slapstick film (as opposed to other styles and media). Just click on the link at the comedian’s name below for more complete essays on each one:

John Bunny (years active: 1909-1915)

Not just America’s first large comedy star, but also by many measures our first comedy star period. Heart-breakingly few samples of his work survive — just enough to make us crazy and want more. I’ve never encountered anybody who’s seen Bunny’s handful of surviving films and didn’t love him to pieces. His personality transcends time and the distancing elements of silence and BxW. Like W.C. Fields, whom he is sometimes compared to, he was an older man, sort of Falstaffian, and that’s what made him lovable. He was like a naughty English uncle. (We’re leaving Fields off this list, btw. He was indeed a stout man, but his size was several notches down the list of attributes that defined him. That is far less the case with other folks on this list. For similar reasons we also omit Curly Howard — a big guy, but that’s hardly his primary attribute as a comedian by any stretch of the imagination.)

Hughie Mack (years active 1915-1927)

A non-actor hired to replace Bunny as Vitagraph’s funny fat man, with the assistance of Larry Semon who began his career directing Mack’s comedies. But as we say Mack wasn’t really a professional comedian, so he never made the sort of mark in the world as did this man:

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (years active as screen comedian: 1909-1921; 1933)

I will be a happy scribe (and Arbuckle a happy ghost) when the world stops talking about him in terms of the friggin’ scandal that halted his career. He was one of our great screen comedians, and a top comedy director, for decades. And he remains one of the best remembered and loved — and accessible — silent screen comedians to this day. Much is made of the fact that he didn’t like to be called “Fatty”. I always use it despite the fact that many of my colleagues don’t. I do so for the simple fact that that’s the name audiences and readers have always known him by. If Arbuckle were, say, my personal friend and alive I might respect his wish. Since he is not, I see no sensible reason to.

Tons of Fun (years active: 1925-1927)

And besides, if you think it is disrespectful to call Roscoe Arbuckle “Fatty”, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For the most part, oddly enough, the concept of the “funny fat man” in movies isn’t done in a hurtful spirit. The operative word, foremost, is funny, even before fat. These are simply great comedians. They incorporate their body into their art, often in a brave way, but they are also sympathetic. We love them; we don’t laugh at them. One of the rare examples of that line being crossed, and where the size of the comedians was use exploitively was the comedy team called Tons of Fun (Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Hilliard “Fat” Karr, and Kewpie Ross). The whole concept of this short-lived team was that three fat men were three times as funny, especially when they did things like break the floor with their combined weight. Of the three, Alexander had the most substantial career. You see him in many comedy films (particularly those of Larry Semon) between 1915 and 1933.

Oliver Hardy (years active: 1914-1951)

I almost hesitate to list Hardy here. Though he did have close to a decade and a half as a screen heavy without Stan Laurel as his partner, I most often think about his size in relation to Laurel’s skinniness (which was actually an illusion). It’s a bit different from being a solo bull-in-a-china-closet. But we couldn’t very well leave him off this list, could we?

Lou Costello (years active: 1940-1959)

Costello is more “dumpy” or “pudgy” than rotund, but, as with Hardy, people usually think of him in terms of his body type. “Child like” would be the first word that springs to my mind in describing him. He has “baby fat” and cheeks you wanna pinch.

Jackie Gleason (years active: 1941-1987)

The Great One definitely sets the longevity record for plus sized screen comedian and this despite the smoking, drinking, rich food, late hours and dying at the age of only 71. Usually thought of as a tv comedian, he was actually the American comedy cinema’s reigning large man during the 1960s.

John Belushi (years active: 1975-1982)

We now enter this heart breaking stretch where we were given three young Comedy Gods who were big guys, all of whom died way too young. Belushi wasn’t so large that you thought of him as a “fat man”. It was more like he was tubby and heedlessly unhealthy — part of the very reason he was a hero! But it was that very attribute that took him from us.

John Candy (years active: 1973-1994)

Candy was the first true heir to Arbuckle to come along in half a century, because he was a true Everyman. You could cast him as any kind of character; he was an actor as much as a comedian. It was a sad day for comedy when he was felled by a heart attack at such a young age. There would have been roles for him as long as he wanted them.

Chris Farley (years active: 1990-1997)

I am overdue to write a tribute to wild man Chris Farley. I wasn’t crazy about him at first, but as he grew comfortable then bold then kamikazi in his performing I became an enthusiastic convert. Something about him was very much in tune with his times

Melissa McCarthy (ca. 2000 – present)

I am also overdue to write more about this lady! But it will have to be more than a single tribute. She is my favorite contemporary screen comedian. I love everything about her. She is groundbreaking in being the first female comedian to bring this kind of violent abandon to comedy performance and she possesses the lack of vanity you have to have to be this kind of comedian. She’s not just funny, she can act, she can write, she’s an improviser of genius. (It’s true that Roseanne Barr paved the way somewhat as a plus-sized comedienne lacking vanity…but again this is a post about slapstick on the big screen.) But, as I say, much more on her to come.

For much more on slapstick comedy please see my 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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