Archive for comedians

The Codgers of Comedy: Several Comedians Who Lived into their 90s and Beyond

Posted in Bob Hope, Comedians, Comedy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2017 by travsd

It’s Senior Citizens Day, a fitting time I think to briefly examine a peculiar phenomenon I have long observed: the longevity of comedians. Something about being in the laugh business (and in many cases cigar smoking, scotch drinking, and eating pastrami sandwiches) is clearly conducive to a long life. And that has only been increasing. When I was a kid, I thought Chaplin and Groucho (at 88 and 87 respectively) were old when they passed away. Today, that’s nothing, it seems like everybody lives to those ages. Here are some notable Mirth-Making Methusalahs and the ages they reached (some are still with us). Just click on links to learn more about each comedian!:

Professor Irwin Corey (1914-2017): 102

Bob Hope (1903-2003): 100

George Burns (1896-1996): 100

Alan Young (1919-2016): 96

Carl Reiner (b. 1922) : 95

Phyllis Diller (1917-2012): 95

Marty Allen (b. 1922) : 95

Larry Storch (b. 1923): 94

Milton Berle (1908-2002): 93

Jack Carter (1922-2015): 93

Bob Elliott (1923-2016): 92

Bill Dana (1924-2017): 92

Sid Caesar (1922-2014): 91

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017): 91

Mel Brooks (b. 1926): 91

Dick Van Dyke (b. 1925): 91 

Don Rickles (1926-2017): 90 

 

 

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

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

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

1.Laurel and Hardy

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

2. The Three Stooges

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

3. Wheeler and Woolsey

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

4. The Marx Brothers

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

5. Hope and Crosby

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

6. Olsen and Johnson

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

7. Clark and McCullough

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

8. Abbott and Costello

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

9. Martin and Lewis

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

 

10. The Ritz Brothers

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

 

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

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

Shaw and Lee: A Crazy Vaudeville Two Act That Lasted for Decades

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Al Shaw (Albert Schutzman, 1902-1985), one-half of the legendary vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee. I’ve uncovered next to zero about their early years in vaudeville, although it’s known that they were good friends with Burns and Allen, who threw them jobs in later years, and whose act bore certain similarities to their own, at least with regard to originality and cleverness. They were far better than most vaudeville two-acts. Shaw was born in Poland; his partner Sam Lee (Sam Levy, 1891-1980) was from Newark.

An error appears on IBDB, BTW: they have Sam Lee as appearing with Cohan and Harris’ Minstrels on Broadway in 1909; the writers have confused him with another Sam Lee from minstrel days. But Shaw and Lee did appear in the 1927 show The Five O’Clock Girl, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and a cast that included Oscar Shaw (no relation) and Mary Eaton (known to Marx Brothers fans from The Cocoanuts), and Pert Kelton.  Lee appeared without Shaw in The Scarlet Fox (1928), as a Chinese magician named Ling Foo Loo, a clear parody of Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. The team also appeared in the 1929 revue Pleasure Bound and the 1931 show The Gang’s All Here. In 1930, they joined Phil Baker, with whom they had worked in Pleasure Bound, on his radio show, and later became regulars on Jack Oakie’s radio program.

But by 1928, they were already prominent enough to be recorded for a Vitaphone short.  Today their notoriety largely rests on that film, ironically named The Beau Brummels, for it is a record of an amazing vaudeville act, both antique and ulta-modern in its deadpan oddness. The pair sing silly songs and exchange strange banter, all the while standing stiffly and awkwardly immobile. Occasionally one or the other will look at his partner with a worried expression. Sometimes they move in unison like dancers. At this writing, you can see it on Youtube. I hesitate to include a link, since they’re always taking things off Youtube and the links go dead on me. But it is worth watching, many many times. They are fascinating and hysterical.

What is anomalous about Shaw and Lee was that they somehow managed to have what amounted to a vaudeville career decades after the death of vaudeville. Almost no one else managed to do this. When you google then, there are reviews for shows at presentation houses (the closest thing left to vaudeville) through the late 1940s. They remained a team. They appeared in one more Vitaphone, called Going Places, in 1930. They appear as as a vaudeville comedy act (essentially themselves) in several films: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), King of Burlesque (1936), In Paris, AWOL (1936) and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), Hollywood Varieties (1950) and in the Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom vehicle Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951). They also did a little tv, including a shot on Ed Wynn’s variety show.

And — another rarity — they were often cast as extras and bit players as a pair. As such they appear in the 1933 short Hunting Trouble with Walter Catlett and Louise Fazenda; they appear as piano movers in the 1934 Joseph Santley film Young and Beautiful, , as moving men in Ready, Willing and Able (1937), and as thugs in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). This is pretty unique, but I can think of something semi-modern to compare it to for a reference. Remember when Cheech and Chong played burglars in the Martin Scorsese comedy After Hours (1985)? A very similar idea. Shaw and Lee’s last movie roles were as repairmen in the 1958 George Gobel comedy I Married a Woman. 

I’m hoping to tease out more about the earlier and later phases of the lives and careers of the incredible team of Shaw and Lee. Lee’s birthday is in next month; perhaps I’ll have some more material to add by then. Today is going to be a very busy blogging day.

To learn more about vaudeville two-acts like Shaw and Lee, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

 

How Laurel and Hardy Became a Team

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2017 by travsd

339246_Laurel- Hardy- biographical film

Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media, copyright (c) 2013, Travis Stewart, All Rights reserved 

Despite the fact that Our Gang/ Little Rascals entertain audiences right down to the present day, it is still not the most successful Hal Roach comedy series. That honor would have to fall to the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who surpass even Harold Lloyd as the biggest comedy stars to come out of the Roach lot in terms of fame and longevity. Odd to report that the two men starred in far more movies separately than they did apart. When they were teamed in 1927, each of the men had already been in films for years, Hardy since 1913, Laurel since 1917. Even if they had never been paired, each of them would most certainly have rated inclusion in this book on his own merits.

Oliver Hardy had spent almost the entirety of his 14-year solo career as a reliable ensemble player. He usually played the “heavy” or comic villain, taking the kind of parts Eric Campbell or Bud Jamison had gotten , but obviously in films less prominent then Chaplin’s. He is unique in being one of the first movie actors to have been almost wholly a creature of the cinema (that is, he had a very minimal stage career; he went directly into films). A son of Southern Aristocracy, Hardy had done a little professional singing as a teenager, but nothing like the day-in, day-out job-of-work vaudeville and circus careers of a lot of the comedians we have discussed in these annals.

At age 18 he got a job as manager of a movie theatre in Milledgeville Georgia, where he ran the projector, ripped tickets, and swept up the popcorn. After three years of watching movies every day, he decided he knew all he needed to know to be up on the screen himself. He moved to Jacksonville, Florida (then one of the country’s several movie-making centers) and broke in within a few months, becoming one of the principal comedians of the Lubin Manufacturing Company. It was during this time that a local barber, while shaving the baby faced comedian, gave him the nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: Babe. When Lubin went bankrupt, Hardy went to New York for several months, jobbing for various studios. But the Big Apple didn’t suit this courtly southerner; he leapt at the chance to return to Jacksonville to star in the “Plump and Runt” series for the Vim Comedy Company.

A decade and a half from creating his famous persona, he truly is a “babe” in these early comedies. In One Too Many (1916) he sports a full mop of wavy curls on his head, and plays a lazy, layabout nephew suffering from a hangover, reminiscent of many Arbuckle characters. The plot is that old comedy stand-by: “I have to pretend that I have an infant, or Uncle will cut off my allowance.” In desperation, he hires a cigar smoking hobo to play the baby; it turns out about as well as expected. Battle Royal (1916) gives one a taste of one of the few amenities Jacksonville had to offer not available in Southern California: the Hatfields-and-McCoys style feud comedy is filmed in a Florida swamp. It’s a location I’ve not seen in any other film of the period and really worth watching for that novelty alone (because that’s about all it has to offer).

As close as we’ll ever get to a Chaplin and Hardy team-up,though Billy West is a surprisingly good consolation prize

Vim was purchased by King Bee and it was during this period that Hardy played the heavy for Billy Wests’s series of Chaplin imitations. Out of the half dozen or so of these I have seen, Hardy’s best turn is in the 1918 Charley Chase-directed He’s In Again, in which he plays a heavily-made-up Eric Campbell style waiter (a la The Immigrant) who has to keep throwing West’s penniless and conniving tramp out of a saloon.

With his hands full of Semon

In 1917, Hardy moved to Los Angeles, gradually working his way up to supporting player for Larry Semon. His roles are scarcely more distinguished in these pictures, but Semon was a big star and so Hardy enjoyed wide exposure as a result of appearing in them. Still, after the initial burst of “Look! It’s Oliver Hardy!” one’s interest begins to wane. He is an ensemble player merely; the Oliver Hardy we love so well from later pictures is entirely absent. In films like Golf, The Counter Jumper, The Barnyard, etc. etc. etc. (there are a lot of them) he tends to be your run of the mill stooge in overalls, just another body to bounce Larry Semon off of.

A thorn in Charley Chase’s side in “Isn’t Life Terrible?”

By the mid-1920s Semon was starting to flounder at the box office and that’s when Hardy began to work for Roach. Thanks to his high visibility in the Semon films he was among the many not-quite-stars that Roach cast in his “All-Star” series, trying to make that title a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, he gets much juicier turns. In Isn’t Life Terrible? (1925) he plays Charley Chase’s good-for-nothing brother-in-law, a lazy hypochondriac whose “weak heart” gets him a pass on doing any work, but conveniently qualifies him to tag along on the family vacation. (The movie has a happy ending though. When the ocean liner they’re taking stops off in South America, he is shot by a firing squad!)

In Yes, Yes, Nanette (1925), Hardy plays the former boyfriend of Jimmy Finlayson’s new wife (Lyle Tayo). Finlayson (still known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as  Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star, like in this one. The Scottish comedian had gotten his start at Sennett and other studios in the late teens, gotten frustrated with playing supporting roles and come over to Roach in 1922. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. There’s plenty of room for that in Yes, Yes, Nanette as Hardy’s character bullies and badgers the newlywed groom, until he snaps and sends the much larger Hardy running down the street with his tail between his legs. The film is especially notable here because it was directed by another member of the Roach All-Stars: Stan Laurel.

Laurel’s resume was quite different from Hardy’s.  At the time of their teaming, he was a stage veteran who had been tried and failed by several major movie producers in his own starring series over a period of a decade. Nearly everyone who watched him perform saw promise; all that was wanting was the right combination of ingredients to make his talents click. But they never seemed to materialize before he started working with Hardy.

Born in Lancashire in 1890, Stan was the son of Arthur Jefferson, a successful actor/manager and playwright. His parents struggled during Stan’s early years, but success came to Jefferson in 1896, touring the provinces with the melodramas that were so popular in that era. When Stan was 12, the family moved to Glasgow where his father managed the Metropole Theatre. When he was a teenager, Stanley made his debut at a local music hall. His father approved and got Stan a job with Levy and Cardwell’s Juvenile Pantomimes, with whom the boy performed for two years.

Laurel and Chaplin (center) w/ Karno & Co. during their U.S. vaudeville tour

In 1910, Stan was discovered by Fred Karno. By this time, Chaplin was already the Karno’s company’s principle comedian. Laurel was made second comedian and Chaplin’s understudy. Upon the troupe’s return to England, Stan left to tour music hall with his own sketches. He was on the brink of starvation when Karno manager Alf Reeves offered him a slot in the 1912 U.S tour. The troop was an even bigger hit this time around, word of mouth and memory serving to amplify audience expectations. When Chaplin left the company to make films, Karno lost all of the upcoming bookings. The act disbanded in 1913.

Some went back home to England, but Stanley Jefferson elected to stay in the land of opportunity. He teamed up with two other Karno alum, Edgar and Wren Hurley as “the Three Comiques”. Stanley wrote a sketch for them called “the Nutty Burglars” that played Chicago and environs for several months. On the advice of booking agent Gordon Bostock, the troupe then began to call themselves the Keystone Trio. Stan started to do his character as Charlie Chaplin, and the Hurleys began to do their parts as silent comedians Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand. I guess this was in the days before lawsuits. Anyway, the deception made the act highly bookable, and the team worked the Poli Circuit for many months, finally breaking up over “creative differences”.

In 1915, he teamed with Alice and Baldwin “Baldie” Cooke to form the “the Stan Jefferson trio”. This knockabout team followed very much the same formula as the Keystones (without the silent film star rip-off) with a sketch called “the Crazy Cracksman” they worked the Proctor, Fox, and Pantages circuits for two years.

Stan and Mae Laurel: Jolly good show! Ripping, wot?

In 1917, Stan met (and fell for) a woman named Mae Dahlberg, an Australian woman who was part of a dancing sister act. Stan dumped the Cookes and teamed up with Mae, making her both his comedy partner and common-law wife. (The fact that she had an actual husband down under stopped her from becoming the legal Mrs. Jefferson). It was Mae who gave Stan the surname the public came to know him by. With the high degree of superstition so common to stage folk, Stanley realized one day that “Stan Jefferson” has 13 letters. As the two were casting about for names, Mae cracked open a history book and saw a picture of Scipio Africanus wearing the traditional laurel wreath of a victorious Roman general. And that’s why we call him Stan Africanus. No, no, just kidding.

Stan and Mae struggled together in vaudeville and films for ten years. George Burns spoke highly of their two-act in later years. He recalled that Stan played Mae’s mother, cried a lot, and got pushed around a lot by Mae, who was a sort of matronly Margaret Dumont type. Onstage (and off it appears) Mae was the prototype of the countless shrewish wives that would be a staple of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy throughout their careers.

In 1917, the team was booked at the Hippodrome in Los Angeles. Producer Adolph Ramish caught the act and, impressed by what he saw, made a sort of demo film with Stan called Nuts in MayNuts in May previewed at the Hippodrome, where it was seen by both Carl Laemmle (the head of Universal Pictures) and Chaplin, who had been a star for three years by that point. Both expressed an interest in signing Stan, but only Laemmle acted on it.

 

In 1917, Stan launched the “Hickory Hiram” series of silent comedies around the eponymous rural character. The films tanked, proving the adage most succinctly expressed in Abel Green’s most famous Variety headline: “Hix Nix Stix Pix”. Jazz Age movie audiences did not go in for bumpkin characters. (tastes changed dramatically during the depression, however when Will Rogers, Chic Sale, and “Ma and Pa Kettle” would click big time with hick shtick. By that time, though, Laurel had long since moved on, to the character we all know him as).

It took years for Stan to catch fire in pictures. All throughout this period well into the 1920s, he continued to play in vaudeville with Mae, occasionally making films at various times for Hal Roach, Broncho Billy Anderson and Vitagraph, where he was teamed with Larry Semon.

Oh dear. In this photo Mae is plainly desperate to prove she was once Stan’s wife

(Mae was gotten out of the picture in 1925 by an enterprising producer named Joe Rock. Not only was she a scandal waiting to happen as Laurel’s long-standing common-law wife (cohabitation being frowned upon in those days), but she insisted on being in all his movies, and she wasn’t very good. The fact that she browbeat and controlled Laurel made her presence in his life further unwelcome. A large financial incentive got her on a boat back to Australia, and tellingly once that was accomplished Laurel’s career began to really take off.)

“Just Rambling Along” — Amusingly that’s not Hardy as the chef, but Bud Jamison. Some “types” just HAVE to be brought together

His earliest surviving vehicle, Just Rambling Along (1918), is an auspicious beginning, chuck full of funny gags and situations. The picture has a sort of Chaplinesque angle – Stan has no money to eat and finds himself trapped in a pay-as-you-exit cafeteria, frantically devising ways to escape before being kicked out into the arms of a waiting policeman. In Hustling for Health (1919) his character has shifted somewhat. Laurel (wearing a rather clown-like get-up) is about to go on vacation but he misses his train. Luckily his friend happens to be standing right there and offers that he come spend the vacation at his house. (Obviously the writers and producers didn’t think this through very thoroughly. The house appears to be in a typical suburban housing tract; why didn’t Laurel just go home?) At any rate, the comedy premise (and the explanation for the title) is that from the get-go, Laurel is made to work rather than relax. His character is much put-upon in this comedy, a very different sort of bloke from the freeloader in Just Rambling Along.

Laurel had the opposite problem of a lot of screen comedians. Because he was so well-trained, talented and versatile, he had a difficult time settling on a persona. Audiences, then as now, liked comedians to play variations on the same character from film to film. Laurel seemed to vacillate.  That he was an expert gag man there was no dispute.  He clearly had more going for him than most silent comedians of the day (say, a Chester Conklin or a Snub Pollard) but he was not (at least not yet) in a league with the giants. While good at gagging, he wasn’t much on story and downright weak on character.  He seemed to be going at it backwards. All of the great ones (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Normand, et al) developed the character first and let the gags arise from that. Then the narrative would evolve from the gags. Laurel seemed to start with the gags, leaving a hole at the center where the heart should be. His solo pictures are often funny enough but unsatisfying.

“West of Hot Dog” (1924)

The closest Laurel seemed to get to a recurring identity was a sort of mischievous young man with a Beetle Bailey-like aversion to work. “Dumb” or “slow” or “child-like” don’t yet enter to it – he usually wasn’t any of those things. We scarcely ever catch a glimpse of anything resembling his later character.  Often he comes across as more spritely than funny. His energy was like that of an adolescent. He had a habit when he was happy of running in place, or jumping from foot to foot.  He is not yet sporting the bed hair of his more familiar later character, but generally wears his hair slicked back, with a severe part in the middle, not too different from Alfalfa.

As with many comedians of the day, he often seemed to build the pictures around locations or work situations. In The Noon Whistle (1923) he is a loafer employed in a lumberyard, forever thinking of ways to hide his goofing off from foreman Jimmy Finlayson. In Oranges and Lemons (1923) he is a picker at a citrus grove. In Kill or Cure (1923) a door to door salesman. In such cases, the gags write themselves: people get hit with boards, or thrown fruit or stuck with bottles of poisonous patent medicine as the case may be.

Many of Laurel’s other films were burlesques of the sort Ben Turpin was already becoming famous for with Mack Sennett. These pictures tend to hang together better, because no real believable character is required as an engine to make it go. Among these were Mud and Sand (1922, a take-off on Valentino’s Blood and Sand in which Laurel played a Spanish bullfighter named Rhubarb Vaselino),When Knights Were Cold (1923, a spoof of Marion Davies’ When Knighthood Was in Flower), and Roughest Africa (1923, a very silly parody of safari travelogues).

Hardy and Laurel, listed separately amongst Roach’s All-Stars

Still, Laurel had a ways to go before he could be called a major comedy star. Roach wanted to change that. In 1925, in an effort to fill the void at the studio left by Harold Lloyd, Roach launched his All Stars series. For the most part the name of the series amounted to wishful thinking. The promised stars more often than not turned out to be comedians on their way up or on their way down. In 1927, two of the comedians included in that roster were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The evolution of the nascent team was rapid but not instantaneous. The two happened to be cast in some pictures together, it was noticed that they had some rapport, so they were gradually cast in even more pictures together, and finally a decision was made to formalize them as a team.  This was an extension I think of the same process that had begun to happen a few years earlier with Arbuckle, Keaton and St John. A certain chemical magic exists among some comedians who had previously worked independently. It takes someone to notice, take it in hand, identify its properties and codify it, but in such way as to not hamper their spontaneity. No one had really done that for Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John, but a sort of roughing-in had occurred…Arbuckle the hero, Keaton the friend or sidekick and St. John the rival. But it was still sort of loose and in flux. Hal Roach, on the other hand, aided by the supervision of Leo McCarey had seen what was latently there with Laurel and Hardy and proactively attempted to make something tangible out of it, including the historic contribution of matching bowler hats. (Interestingly, there had been initial talk of making Finlayson a formal member of the team as well. As it turned out, it worked out just fine with Fin as an adjunct member of the greater stock company instead.)

Their first scene together, six years prior to their teaming

Fortuitously, Laurel and Hardy had first appeared onscreen together several years earlier, though nothing came of it at the time. The movie is called The Lucky Dog (1921). In the film (undoubtedly inspired by A Dog’s Life) Laurel plays a ne’er-do-well who adopts a stray mutt and uses him as an excuse to follow a pretty girl into a dog show. Hardy plays one of his endless parade of armed robbers. This is the occasion on which the two comedians met for the very first time. Not particularly auspicious or seemingly significant at the time. There would be much water under the bridge before they would definitively join forces.

The potential for a team was apparently first noticed in the short Duck Soup (unrelated to the eponymous Marx Brothers film apart from the presence of Leo McCarey). In this film they are not yet officially teamed, merely co-starred, but they are amazingly like the characters for which they would eventually become famous. This is remarkable especially given that their roles are unlike what they have previously played and that they would revert to other characterizations immediately afterward. They play a pair of tramps who are fleeing a conscription of hoboes to fight a raging forest fire. They take refuge in a mansion where the owner is away for the weekend and masquerade as the owner and the maid (Laurel in drag). The owner returns early and furiously throws them out. They end up having to fight the fire –which they apparently started–anyway. Laurel is playing dumb (which he doesn’t always do) in this one. But Hardy is particularly close to what we know, perhaps because he is doing the kind of tramp who puts on airs. He sports a monocle and top hat, and exhibits a lot of the manners and mannerisms we associate with “Ollie”.

With 20-20 hindsight we can see that they’ve stumbled onto a discovery without realizing it. The powerful visual impression, with Ham and Bud as its obvious precedent, of two contrasting body types dressed identically, in this case, fat and skinny as opposed to short and tall. Laurel, by the way, wasn’t particularly thin at this stage in his life (and even less so going forward). The effect would be accomplished with over-sized clothes that made him look like a boy wearing hand-me-downs.

“Putting Pants on Philip” is their official film as a team — but they don’t play their well-known characters!

But apparently they would need to back away from this Eureka moment in order to notice what they had found. Over the next few films they would revert to other relationships and other characterizations, occasionally regaining a piece of it or making a new discovery but still not appearing as “Laurel and Hardy”. For example in Why Girls Love Sailors (1927) they couldn’t be any farther from a team. Laurel plays a boyfriend who has boarded a steamer to rescue his kidnapped fiancée; Hardy plays the vessel’s rough-and-tough first mate, much like the traditional heavies he had always played. Yet this is the film in which he discovered two of his lasting mannerisms: the nervous tie-twiddle, and the fourth-wall-breaking glare directly at the camera, as if to say “You see what I have to put up with?” To confuse matters, in their next few films (The Second Hundred Years, Hats Off and Do Detectives Think? all 1927) they are completely recognizable as the team we know them as (right down to the matching derbies) yet in their first official release as a team. Putting Pants on Philip (1927), they don’t wear the derbies and their characters are somewhat different (Laurel, for one, is a kilt-wearing Scotsman, and is much more like his traditional comic creations—energetic, and not particularly dumb). In their next one, though The Battle of the Century (1927) they revert to something resembling the familiar formula. It’s like that for the first several months, a little herky-jerky, until piece by piece, they magically discovered the characters, relationship and rhythms that would make them one of the most beloved comedy teams of all time.

As Walter Kerr points out in The Silent Clowns, the metronome was set by Hardy, whose wide girth and langorous Southern manners and pace were the very opposite of the under-cranked Keystone Kops and most other silent comedy as well. I’ll stick my neck out right here and now and say that not only is Hardy my favorite member of the team (most people prefer Laurel), he is also my favorite comedian – as a comedian — in this book. Watching him fills me with mirthful joy, mostly because of the absolute relish he takes in each and every gesture. Not just the obvious things like the tie-twiddle, or his embarrassed little wave. But how he does things: how he cocks his hat on his head when he is ready to take something on, or how, when he gets doused with a bucket of water he flicks the last drop off his finger.

 “Oliver” is a complex creation, much misunderstood. For example, it’s a gross mischaracterization to say that he is grumpy or even short-tempered. The whole point of the team’s films is that Ollie is naturally the opposite of that. In the early scenes of their pictures he is generally in a terrific mood, singing, smelling flowers, and so forth. As a character he is normally charming, gracious, and frequently (hilariously) bashful. All of these sweet qualities are necessary of course so that his face will have that much further to fall when Stanley ruins everything, as he inevitably does. And if Ollie blows his stack when Stanley causes trouble, well, who wouldn’t? Ollie’s not bad-tempered; he’s just normal.

I also don’t buy the line that Oliver is as dumb or dumber than Stanley which many commentators (including the comedians themselves) seem to espouse. Instead, what I observe in the films is that Hardy’s character is more worldly than Stan, knows on some level how the universe operates, has a bigger vocabulary, and would probably be just fine if he wasn’t saddled with his dim-witted partner. Hardy may be foolhardy and riddled with flaws, but in a milder sort of way than Laurel. He is impatient, vain and wildly overconfident in his own abilities. This causes him to make the mistake of initiating new projects and – the worst mistake of all – trusting Stanley.

It seems to me that any Laurel and Hardy movie is really a Hardy movie. He is the one we relate to (hence those shared moments when he engages the camera) and he is the one who goes on an emotional journey of some sort. Laurel, on the other hand, is merely a plot point, an obstacle, much like the female characters in some of Keaton’s films. This is not, by the way, to remotely put Laurel’s contribution down. Rather the opposite. His character is a force of nature akin to Keaton’s and Harry Langdon’s in that he is downright supernatural. He is not merely stupid, but he is completely vacant, like a beast of burden, like a black hole. That is why he is such an excellent gag machine. The consensus seems to be that the character grew out of Laurel’s need to adjust to Hardy’s slower rhythms, and in an effort to do so he (an encyclopedic gag man) plundered the Harry Langdon playbook. The child-like quality, the bursting into tears, the appearance of always being at least one beat behind – all these come from Langdon. Like Langdon, Laurel is a Holy Fool, so dumb that on occasion he doesn’t know that he should obey the laws of physics. There is a beautiful symbolism to the character (on top of the hilarity).  That he, like Keaton, never intended any, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The bird doesn’t know it’s singing, either. It just does it.

The combination of Laurel and Hardy is very much like two children who get each other into trouble. The effect of the story arc is usually enhanced by the respectability symbolized by the two derbies. This is the production house that gave us Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase, remember. This is middle class comedy. Their characters are members of the petit-bourgeoisie who in their films generally make the mistake of deviating from their routine. When you are Laurel and Hardy you must never try something. It generally leads to complete destruction. Often they are just a wee bit rebellious and like to step out on their wives. It is hard to judge the boys too harshly on this score since the deck is always stacked – they are invariably given a pair of terrifying spouses, rolling pin wielding shrews. Sometimes they are beautiful like Thelma Todd or Anita Garvin; sometimes a bit harsh like Mae Busch or Daphne Pollard. But the relationships are always oppressive and emasculating, inspiring the boys to assert their manhood by sneaking out to nightclubs and flirting with floozies. They like to whoop it up, but they always pay for it in the end. In one of the first of these Their Purple Moment (1928), they skip out on their wives and treat a couple of fast girls to a good time at a speakeasy. Unfortunately, neither Laurel nor Hardy has any money, so the boys will be doubly humiliated when their wives show up to bust them, as they will also have to bail them out of their jam. It’s a story template they would draw from for the next decade.

As a team, Laurel and Hardy played with audience’s expectations by ritualizing them, elaborating on them, embellishing them. They seemed to savor each moment, milk it, and wring every possible gag out of every situation. This is the word I would use for the duo: delicious. Even when I am not laughing I am filled with a pleasure from my head to my toes of the absolute poetry of their interplay. But times when I am not laughing at them are rare. As I said, Hardy is my favorite comedian, and Laurel, ironically the brains of the team, can’t help but impress me as well. Several of their shorts may be deemed among the funniest movies of all time, exceeding even those of Chaplin and Keaton. The fact is, I laugh longer and harder at their films than anyone else’s, and by a wide margin. Further, as with Keaton, the formal beauty of some of their moments on film often approaches dance or music, and even may be said to possess profound meaning.

I am thinking primarily of one of their most commonly used comic devises, dubbed by the duo and their support team the “Tit-for-Tat”. It’s an old English expression meaning roughly the same as “measure for measure”, “an eye for an eye” or “giving as good as you get”. By way of illustration one must unavoidably cite what may be their funniest movie (although it would be impossible to choose). In Big Business (1929) the pair are a couple of door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen who make the mistake of annoying Jimmy Finlayson one bright, sunny Southern California day. Fin slams the door in their faces, accidentally trapping a branch in the process. They irritate him some more by ringing the doorbell so they can free the tree, and then a kind of symbolic defilement happens as Laurel and Hardy proceed to destroy Fin’s house and all its contents, while Finlayson tears apart their automobile. By the end of the movie, all is rubble.

The humorous part of such exchanges is the veneer of civilization that governs them. It is a ritual, exactly like the chivalrous codes of a duel. One person stands and politely makes himself available as a target, while the other carefully takes aim and fires (or dumps a bowl of cake batter on his head, as the case may be). Often, as it is in Big Business, it is directed against a third party. Just as often, the boys engage in an internal quarrel and do it to each other. They each have their own style. When Hardy waits to “get his” he includes us, silently imploring “Isn’t this humiliating?” When Laurel waits he just stares vacantly at the ground like a cow or a mule, almost as though he’s already forgotten a scrap were in progress. When the deed is done, he merely blinks, the epitome of blankness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Laurel and Hardy’s greatest contribution to World Peace however is what I call the epidemic Tit-for-Tat. This a sort of comical zombie apocalypse scenario where the battle starts with a couple of characters and spreads to the general population like a virus, culminating in great, glorious set pieces of comedy, truly spectacular moments of cinema. This interesting innovation seems to have begun with Hat’s Off (1927), a lost film the first act of which was later remade as The Music Box (1932), substituting a piano for the washing machine in the original. The climax of the film had Laurel and Hardy mixing their hats up (as they would often do), then drawing another passerby in, and then another, until the entire street is full of mixed, discarded hats like some bloodless Antietam.

This was followed up with The Battle of the Century, a film justly renowned for showcasing the most epic pie fight ever recorded. How good it is? Let’s just say it’s impressive enough that even I like it, and I generally scorn pie fights, mostly due to that saturation and overexposure that has happened over the last century. In my view, a pie in the face ceased to be funny before your great grandfather was born. Buster Keaton agreed. When he started his solo contract in 1920 he vowed that there would be a moratorium on thrown pies; it was already a cliché by then. But Laurel and Hardy (and I of course include their directors, gagmen and co-stars) made ballet out of a pie fight – as they did with all physical business. In The Battle of the Century, the boys accidentally cause a pie delivery man to get one right in the puss. In retaliation, he starts to heave his wares out of his truck, which is naturally lined with an impossible number of pies. Soon, everyone on the street is drawn into the melee. The entire block resembles a Tong War, the entire atmosphere criss-crossed with airborne pies. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and that includes pie fights.

And so and so. You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) ends with a sidewalk full of people pulling each other’s pants down. In Two Tars (1928) an entire highway full of backed-up traffic breaks out in madness, with drivers tearing apart each other’s stalled vehicles like Finlayson had done in Big Business, only times 2 or 3 dozen. In Double Whoopee (1929) everyone in a hotel lobby breaks out in an orgy of eye poking, instigated, as in all these cases, by Laurel and Hardy. (Incidentally, this movie is doubly worth watching for containing one of the first screen appearances of 17 year old Jean Harlow.) Big Business and Putting Pants on Philip contain mobs as well: crowds of the morbidly curious who can’t resist rubbernecking at the unfolding mayhem. H’m…they sound like stand-ins for us.

From the late 20s through the mid 30s Laurel and Hardy were one of Hollywood’s most popular comedy teams, cranking out some 70 shorts and ten features – some of which (in terms of the laughter generated) are among the most perfect comedies ever made.

For more (much more) on Laurel and Hardy and silent and slapstick film comedy, please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube available from Bear Manor Media,

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

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by travsd

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The company was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest studios, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at Universal’s various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save money, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s a great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, Arbuckle bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Mack Sennett also cut a deal to release his comedies through the studio starting in 1917, an arrangement that lasted until 1923, and was resumed 1932-1934.  Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians. Warner Brothers did end up making a major mark in the comedy business in the end — in the form of animated shorts, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss 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 To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

%d bloggers like this: