Archive for comedies

Jack Gilford: A Cracker Jack Performer

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday to Jack Gilford (Jacob Aaron Gellman, 1908-1990). This universally beloved pop culture figure was perhaps more present than ever on the American landscape during his last years, between the Crackerjack commercials and the Cocoon movies. His was a quiet, gentle presence, and I realize in retrospect that he was a pathway in for my appreciation of Harpo Marx. When I read about his early career, it sounds like his live act was even more Harpo-esque.

One reason I haven’t yet written about Gilford is that it has always been a little unclear to me whether he’d literally performed in vaudeville or not. That was my original impetus for writing performer biographies and I was originally fairly strict about my definition of vaudeville as consisting of the actual circuits, which had passed from the scene by the early 1930s. Gilford was definitely old enough to have performed in the literal vaudeville. Many obituaries and capsule biographies speak of Gilford as having been in vaudeville, but this was frequently done in such squibs. But it is at best an assumption. Until I see some specifics, i.e., what theatre, what city, what year, which will require more research, I will have to keep the idea of Gilford in vaudeville what it is: vague and uncertain. (The biggest irony of all this, I actually knew and briefly worked with one of Gilford’s sons at Theater for the New City, but, as often happens when I meet relatives of famous people, I erred on the side of not peppering him with questions about his dad. I may reach out to him now to try to get a better handle on the story).

You can definitely say that in STYLE Gifford was vaudevillian, and certainly was greatly influenced by vaudeville. He has much in common with Zero Mostel, with whom he was later to work so wonderfully in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Born on the Lower East Side, raised in Williamsburg, the son of Jewish immigrants, he was later to live in Greenwich Village — and lived there until he died. And though he did lots of film and tv, he really made his biggest mark on Broadway. He really was a cradle to grave New Yorker. Like Mostel, he cut his comedy teeth working in the Catskills and in New York City night clubs and cabarets. It is said that he competed in amateur nights against the likes of Jackie Gleason, and that Milton Berle was an early mentor. His act was a blend of monologue, impressions, and pantomime. His repertoire included imitations of Harry Langdon, George Jessel, Rudy Vallee, and many others. In 1936,  he got to do a version of his act in a movie short called Midnight Melodies. By 1938 he was the emcee at a club called Cafe Society, a high profile engagement.  In 1940, he was booked in the Broadway revue Meet the People with Jack Albertson, Nanette Fabares, and Doodles Weaver. The Broadway play They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942) may have been his first straight acting gig.

If this isn’t a Harpo moment, I don’t know what is

Throughout the ’50s his time seemed about equally divided between doing his comedy specialty in clubs, revues, and on tv; and acting in roles in Broadway, tv, and films. Again, like Zero Mostel, his devotion to left wing causes is thought to have hindered his career for a time due to the blacklist. But by the mid 1950s, his Broadway career was dazzling. Just a few highlights: the original productions of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955-1957), Once Upon a Mattress (1959-1960),  Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959-1961), A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962-1964), Cabaret (1966-1969), and Sly Fox (1976-1978), as well as the smash revival of No, No, Nanette (1971-1973) with Ruby Keeler. His last Broadway show was an adaptation of The World of Sholom Aleicheim (1982), which he’d originally done on television in 1959. He also did tv versions of many musicals, and guest shots on almost every tv show known to man. Some of his notable films include the movie version of Forum (1966), The Incident (1967), They Might be Giants (1973), Save the Tiger (1973 — for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Ringo Starr’s Caveman (1981), the Cocoon films (1985 and 1988), and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988). In 1988, he was on Golden Girls which brings us full circle to the person we began blogging about this morning, Estelle Getty. It is a synchronicitous morning.

To learn about vaudeville history,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

On Nazi Comedies

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2017 by travsd

Good heavens — no! I don’t mean great comedies MADE by the Nazi film studios!  I apologize if I gave you that impression, although if it got you here then it was a good headline. No, no, I mean, great comedies at the EXPENSE of the Nazis, of course. There’s enough of such movies to make a mini sub-genre. And you know what? Now is the ideal time to revive it.  A substantial portion of the American populace think it’s okay to warm up to Fascism; an even bigger slice think it’s fine to be soft on it, or pretend they don’t see it. But Fascism, like dog shit, is pretty unmistakable. It looks and smells odious. Animals, in their innocence, roll around in it. The rest of humanity, inasmuch as they represent humanity, have a zero tolerance policy towards it. You’re supposed to say, “Jesus! Dog shit!” Then you put a clothes pin on your nose, don some gloves, scoop the plop into a bag, and remove it from your midst. It’s the only rational course to take when confronted with unrepentant, unchanging racists, bigots, and authoritarians in a country that’s supposed to be free. You do not “live with” dog poop, even in a society of maximum tolerance. “What’s that next to the coffee table?” “Oh, that’s just some of the dog’s poop. What are you gonna do, right?” And if it’s outside your power to move the thing? Well, if you can’t scoop the abomination up, you can try to shrink it where it sits until it doesn’t matter any more. You can belittle Fascists, make them feel and appear insignificant, expose them as weak and foolish clowns. Some of our greatest comedians have chosen to make that statement at various times. If you ask me, we can use more than a few new anti-Nazi comedies at this very moment. But until new ones are forthcoming, these are these evergreen classics to enrich us:

The Great Dictator (1940)

The claim that “the Three Stooges did it first” is not completely true — Charlie Chaplin had actually begun pre-production on his satirical masterwork in 1937, three years before the short You Nazty Spy was even a gleam in Jules White’s eye, even if the latter film did beat The Great Dictator into theatres by three months. Chaplin’s comedy was not only devastating and surprisingly accessible but brave. Among Hollywood professionals only he was both rich enough and popular enough to take such a risk at the time. And the mustache made it virtually obligatory. My full essay on The Great Dictator is here. 

You Nazty Spy (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1940)

Like we say, the Three Stooges beat Chaplin into cinemas with their Nazi satire, no doubt emboldened to take the risk by Chaplin. Jews themselves, they were no doubt second to none in their personal outrage at what was happening in Europe. But, speaking of Nazty Spies…the techniques in You Nazty Spy (1940) and its sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1940) are so similar to what Chaplin was doing in The Great Dictator, I find it hard to believe the Stooges didn’t somehow get wind of what he had planned. Things like the burlesques on proper names, and the use of a globe as a football (where Chaplin had used a globe as a dancing partner) seem awfully similar. Moe is the natural Hitler figure, Curly a curiously apt Goering, and as for Larry, they sort of shoehorn into a Goebbels/Ribbentrop hybrid. After these two comedies, the Stooges continued to make Nazis their villains, frequently having Nazi spies and saboteurs be the bad guys in their films through the end of the war. (Many others used that as a plot device as well: the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. If we jump down the “Nazi Spy comedy” rabbit hole, we’ll never get out. This post is more about comedians ridiculing actual Nazis in uniform).

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This movie was a lot of firsts for me — my first Lubitsch film, my first Jack Benny film, probably my first Carole Lombard film. While today it’s probably Lubitsch’s best known comedy, and in some ways might seem uncharacteristic (it’s so specifically political), there are also ways in which it is right in line with his usual concerns: it’s set in Europe; and it’s about squabbling and adultery on the part of a married couple. I’m not the hugest Lubitsch fan, but this is probably my favorite of his films on account of the farcical perfection of it, and the fact that there is the political anchor to it. Benny and Lombard play a vain, sophisticated husband-and-wife acting team at a Warsaw theatre, just as the Nazis are occupying Poland. They use their acting skills (and their whole like-minded troupe) to deceive the Nazis and foil their plans. There is a poignancy in the film’s quotation of Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew” speech, but also in the Hamlet quote used as the film’s title. Poland has just ceased to “Be”. Many of the film’s characters have their backs to the wall — they have no choice but to be brave and take risks. What have they got to lose?

Der Fuhrers Face (1943)

This Donald Duck Short won the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year. There were many shorts featuring the Disney characters volunteering to serve, fighting in the war, and helping with home defense. This one went for the propagandistic jugular, and helped popularize the eponymous song, to boot.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

After the conclusion of WWII there was a grace period of about a year when Nazi spies were still permissible fodder for Hollywood films. Thus we have Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca all released in 1946. This is the only exception we make to the “No Nazi Spy Comedies” rule. The photo above seems to have been a publicity still — no uniformed Nazis appear in the movie. For my full post on A Night in Casablanca, go here. 

INTERMISSION:

There followed a period of about 20 years when you don’t see Nazis in comedy, for two conflicting reasons, I think. On the one hand, for a while (the 1950s anyway) World War II was passe in movies. On the other hand, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials and all the revelations about the Holocaust, ironically, it was also “too soon” to joke about Nazis. The full extent of their evil was so great. Perhaps, many people thought, it would never be possible to laugh at them ever again.  But that would be to underestimate the power of bad taste.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)

Context helps us understand the mind-bogglingly weird phenomenon of Hogan’s Heroes, the sixties’ sit-com set in a Nazi Germany POW camp. One, I think, is the success of the films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), which, mashed-together, add up to something like Hogan’s Heroes. The latter, released only two years before, put an almost cheerful, positive spin on the ordeal of Allied POWs in a German camp. The added twist on the show is that Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men are secretly spies who pretty much escape in and out of the camp at will to collect information and relay it back to their superiors via a secret radio. The fact that many of the cast members were Jewish Holocaust survivors (I’ve blogged about one, Robert Clary) was a kind of insurance against charges of callousness. And in the long run, maybe Hogan’s Heroes was almost cathartic, laughing at silly, ineffectual Nazis every week. The show remained on the air for six years — an extremely long time for a television sit com.

La Grand Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At) (1966)

For 40 years this unpretentious, enjoyable comedy was the most successful movie in France in terms of box office. And it’s a great movie; I just watched it for the first time this morning. How odd that Americans have never heard of it. It’s extremely popular throughout the world, regarded as a kind of classic. In fact, it’s so well made that I watched this French film on Youtube without English dubbing or subtitles and was able to follow it perfectly.  Its simple plot: RAF pilot Terry-Thomas and his crew are forced to bail over occupied Paris. Some locals (played by French stars Bouvril and Louis de Funes, and others) help them to evade the occupying Nazis through a string of subterfuges, involving lots of farce and slapstick. Again, the Nazis are presented as straw men, easy to fool, easy to bonk on the head, easy to hide from. If only ’twere ever thus!

The Producers (1967)

Dick Shawn’s Hippie Hitler, Kenneth Mars’ stormtrooper playwright, and songs like “Springtime for Hitler” are only some of the delightful outrages in Mel Brooks pathbreaking satire. And it wasn’t even the first time he went there (think of “Siegfried” in Get Smart, which Brooks had co-created with Buck Henry).

Which Way to the Front? (1969)

For better or worse, the years 1969-1972 were Jerry Lewis’s Nazi period, encompassing not only this comedy but his later notorious drama, the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Until we see the latter we won’t know which is the worse film, although I think of Which Way to the Front? as being among this comedy auteur’s worst. Based on a story by the one and only Dick Miller, it concerns a 4F millionaire who decides he’ll fight the war anyway with his own private army of misfits (which also seems a twist on The Dirty Dozen, which was released at around the same time.) Lewis’s character masquerades as a Nazi general and makes it all the way to Hitler, who, for some reason, has a Beatles haircut. In fact every dude in the movie has hair that’s way too long, they wear the wrong clothes, and the interior sets are all decorated wrong. The only thing Lewis seems to have gotten right or cared about was the actual Nazi uniforms. It is a deeply weird and grating movie. Oh, and don’t worry — he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine.

Soft Beds, Hard Battles aka Undercovers Hero (1974)

This is too interesting a movie to be as obscure as it is. Perhaps it is the fact that the film has no less than TWO terrible titles. And the movie….needs work. I’m sure a lot of people watch it and write it off as terrible, but I found myself fairly riveted, and not just because of all the topless women running around. It’s one of those comedies where Peter Sellers plays several characters, and in this, one of them is Adolph Hitler. It’s made by the Boulting Brothers, who made earlier Sellers films like I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). Here, they seem like they’re trying to get topical and experimental. The scenario is a lot like Genet’s The Balcony, set in a French brothel, where all the call girls have been called upon by the Resistance to spy on (and sometimes bump off) their high-up Nazi clientele. For some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, but must also have dated the film instantly, a Richard Nixon impersonator is the narrator.  Oh, and don’t worry — Sellers doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine, either.

To Be or Not to Be re-make (1983)

I have never been really sure why this film exists. There is some logic I guess, given Mel Brooks track record, of casting him in a remake of To Be or Not to Be, and the director Alan Johnson is the guy who choreographed “Springtime for Hitler”. But the original movie was perfect. Why remake it? This version doesn’t particularly recontextualize the story or reinvigorate it or put any new twist on it. Why make this picture in 1983? At the time, Poland was in the news because of the labor strikes and so forth, but this doesn’t particularly seem attached to that, or to anything really. It’s just a remake, almost like Gus Van Sandt’s 1998 Pyscho is a remake. Now, on the other hand — now would be an excellent time to remake this movie. It would indeed.

How Olive Borden Went From Being “The Joy Girl” to an Early Death on Skid Row

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

Beautiful Olive Borden was born on Bastille Day, 1906 in Richmond, Virginia. Through her father, who passed away when she was an infant, she was a distant relative of Lizzie Borden. Borden and her struggling single mother moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager so she could break into movies. It is said that she became a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1922(when she was 15), although her first film credits are a series of Jack White comedies starring Lige Conley. In 1924 she was hired by Hal Roach for his comedy studio, where she was cast opposite comedy stars like Will Rogers and Charley Chase.

Things changed for her in a big way in 1925 when she was named one of that year’s WAMPAS Baby Stars and signed a contract with Fox.  As a star of Fox features she became a major box office attraction and one of the top paid actors in Hollywood. Notable films of this period include the comedy Fig Leaves (1926), directed by Howard Hawks, and co-starring George O’Brien and Phyllis Haver; and the John Ford western Three Bad Men (1926), also with O’Brien as well as Lou Tellegen. The comedy The Joy Girl (1927), directed by Allan Dwan, co-starring Marie Dressler, gave her her nickname.

Foreshadowing

Borden broke her contract with Fox in 1927 over a salary dispute, but continued to appear in pictures for other studios through the early days of talkies, although by the sound era most of her films are for minor independent studios. Her last film was the voodoo horror film Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934).

At this point she moved to New York and attempted a career on the stage and what was left of vaudeville, where she was able to work for a time. But opportunities in the theatre during the depths of the Great Depression were scarce. By the late 30s she had declared bankruptcy and began working a succession of menial jobs. She served as a WAC in World War II (and was even cited for bravery) but she returned to more of what she had left. Attempts to return to films failed. Troubled by alcoholism and other health problems, she was reduced to scrubbing floors at the Sunshine Mission, on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. She died there of pneumonia and other complications in 1947. She was only 41.

For more on early silent film comedy, 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. For everything you need to to know about vaudeville, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Terry-Thomas and His Tragic Final Days

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

The great eccentric British comedian Terry-Thomas (Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, 1911-1990) was born on July 10. It may shock you (or perhaps not) to know that this quintessential caricature of an upper-crust Englishman was a working class kid, the son of a butcher who was into amateur theatricals. As a teenager, Young Tom Stevens began to cultivate his accent, basing his speech on that of an actor named Owen Nares, and began dressing nattily in imitation of his favorite movie stars. He was endowed by nature with the gapped teeth; the cigarette holder, tailored suits, mustache, spats, bowler hat and so forth would all be added later, as would the unique hyphenated professional name. As a young man he held menial jobs (clerkships and so forth), while simultaneously playing ukulele in jazz bands, working as a movie extra and developing a cabaret act. During World War II, he traveled with a unit that entertained the troops, and this increased his confidence and his visibility.

It wasn’t until after the war, at age 36, that his star began to rise. He performed in a sketch revue called Picadilly Hayride that was a smash success in the West End, running close to 800 performances. This led to his becoming the first British comedy tv star in 1949 on a show called How Do You View? He was a star of British comedy film throughout the 1950s (Tom Thumb, 1958, and I’m Alright, Jack, 1959 might be best known to Americans.) In the ’60s his stardom went international. La Grande Vadrouille (1966) was the most successful film in France in terms of box office dollars until 2004, and still ranks third. Americans know him from several popular Hollywood pictures made during the 60s, in which lampooned the stereotypical Brit for our benefit, though not always. He’s in The Wonderful Wold of the Brothers Grimm (1962), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Mouse on the Moon (1963), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Munster Go Home (1966), Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), The Perils of Pauline (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge Lower the River with Jerry Lewis (1968), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? and How Sweet It Is, both made with Doris Day in 1968, the Dr. Phibes films with Vincent Price (1971 and 1972), and the voice of the snake in Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973).

Unfortunately, in 1971 he learned that he had Parkinson’s Disease, and thus began a slow, painful descent that lasted nearly two decades. Throughout the ’70s he continued to act, although the roles got smaller, fewer, slower and more feeble. Here is in the 1977 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with starred Peter Cook and Dudley Moore:

His last screen credit was in 1980. Throughout the ’80s he was forced to live off his savings to live and pay for his medical treatments, and withdrew from public life. Towards the end he had sold all of his property and was discovered living with his wife in a charity flat. At that point his condition was publicized, an all-star charity concert was held, and thousands of pounds were raised. Look at the screen shot below. For the final indignity, they left out the hyphen in the lower third caption! Terry-Thomas died a few months after the celebrity concert, in 1990.

Beatrice Blinn: A Comedienne Close to Greatness

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2017 by travsd

Comic actress Beatrice Blinn (1901-1979) was born on this day. While I’d seen her in many, many other films previously, I didn’t take note of her until I saw her in the 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble, with Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, Mary Wickes, and — most notably — a very young, early career Jimmy Stewart. Piecing her life and career together has been an interesting puzzle. I’m not all the way there yet but I’m close.

Born in Forest County, Wisconsin, she was the niece of stage and screen actor/director Holbrook Blinn, who directed plays at the Princess Theatre, and appeared in the films McTeague (1916), Janice Meredith (1924), and The Telephone Girl (1927). The elder Blinn undoubtedly could have, would have, and did provide useful introductions for her in the theatre. Yet most of her early publicity describes her as a “Seattle artist” who joined the chorus of the show Gay Paree in 1925 so that she could paint and sketch chorus girls. That may sound like a stretch to you, and it might have to me — but for the fact that I am very close to someone who is fairly obsessed with drawing chorus girls — my wife! At any rate, it is quite possible that both paths are accurate: her uncle was useful and his beautiful niece joined the chorus on a lark. It’s not without precedent. One of the greatest actors of the 20th century, John Barrymore was a visual artist until one day he decided to give the family business a whirl, and it turned out to be the thing for him.

In early 1926 Blinn appeared in the melodrama Nightstick at Werbla’s Theatre, Brooklyn. This show moved to Broadway a year later, but Blinn wasn’t in it. She had already made the move to the Great White Way several months earlier to appear in the 1926 play The Adorable Liar. After a couple more Broadway roles, she married playwright/actor/director Crane Wilbur in 1928, another connection likely made through her famous uncle.

What is especially interesting to me about Beatrice Blinn’s ensuing career is that it is a hodgepodge of roles in prestige Broadway plays, classic Hollywood films (usually in small parts), and low-down slapstick comedy shorts — pretty much all at the same time!

She first went with Wilbur to Hollywood in 1929, and appeared in three talkie comedy shorts. Grass Skirts (1929) was an Educational short, directed by Alf Goulding, and starring Lloyd Hamilton and Ruth Hiatt. She co-starred with Johnny Arthur in the 1929 Vitaphone Stimulation. The Cheerleader (1930) was a drama starring one Tom Douglas. 

In 1933 Blinn and Crane divorced. She returned to Broadway, next appearing in the original productions of three George S. Kaufman shows: The Dark Tower (1933-1934), Merrily We Roll Along (1934-1935), and Stage Door (1936-1937). Note that the aformentioned 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble was shot at their Astoria, Queens studio while she was living in New York.

After this she went back to Hollywood for that unusual career, juggling bit parts in classic features and better parts in low down comedy shorts and B movies. The features included Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1939), Golden Boy (1939), and Mae West’s The Heat’s On (1943). At the same time you can see her in Columbia comedy shorts with Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, and Charley Chase. These comedy “classics” include the Stooges’ Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936), and Violence is the Word for Curly (1938). In Keaton’s Nothing But Pleasure (1940) she gets to play the drunk woman in his umpteenth re-creation of his famous Spite Marriage bit. Her last film was Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1944) with El Brendel and Shemp Howard.

After this, she pretty effectively vanishes, with no mention I have found until she dies in San Diego in 1979. Why she retired at that stage, a relatively young age, can only be conjecture, as would be what it was she moved on to afterwards. Did she return to her art? Did she luck into another line of work that paid more and was more satisfying than the bit roles which seemed to be her permanent lot in the movies business? Did she go back to the theatre in some regional city? We’d be delighted to know the answer and we’ll be sure to share the answer here once we uncover it. One conclusion I feel comfortable drawing from afar: she must had a lousy agent. Beatrice Blinn had many advantages and for a time a promising resume. But these assets were clearly not maximized.

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

 

 

Billy “Froggy” Laughlin: Rascal Who Died Youngest

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by travsd

July 5 is the natal day of Billy “Froggy” Laughlin (1932-1948).

Though he was a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Our Gang/ Little Rascals series of film comedies (he was a member of the cast 1940-1944), he has always made one of the biggest impressions on me, and has always been one of my favorites. He’d have been distinctive enough visually: with his slightly crossed eyes and thick-lensed glasses, he’s always reminded me a little of Brandon de Wilde, the kid from Shane. But over and beyond this — he had this incredible, hilarious voice, he almost sounds like a victim of demonic possession. It’s not his real one of course, he’s doing a funny voice, but it was really Laughlin doing it (some have theorized that he was dubbed, but he wasn’t). Though he was one of the main characters, his voice was used sparingly for obvious reasons. It would lose its power to provoke laughs if you overdid it. But it was a great gimmick; essentially he gets a laugh every time he talks.

When Our Gang ceased production he had a role in the 1944 film Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, with Simone Simon, Robert Mitchum, Grady Sutton and Dorothy Granger. That was his last film. He retired as an actor at age 12.

Sadly, he was killed at age 16 when he was riding two to a scooter with a friend delivering newspapers. His friend had made a surprise u-turn directly into the path of an oncoming truck. The friend survived; Froggy didn’t. This is how he looked as a teenager. Looks like he was shaping up to be quite the James Dean. He no doubt would have made an excellent Bowery Boy.

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

7 Reasons Why 1917 Was the Most Auspicious Year in Silent Comedy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2017 by travsd
We are now midway through the centennial anniversary of what may have been silent comedy’s most auspicious year. Yes, there were other momentous events in other years. Mack Sennett started Keystone in 1912. Charlie Chaplin made his first film in 1914. The great comedy features by the silent masters were all made during the 1920s. But 1917 is notable for the number and diversity of its comedy milestones, all of which combine for a major league industry-wide wallop. These combined events were transformational, to put it mildly. Granted — the real story of 1917 was happening in Europe: America entered World War One and Russia was wracked by Revolution. But our more modest purview is the revolution in comedy. Consider:
1. 1917 was the second year of Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual period, during which he made four of his most perfect comedies. Easy Street (January), The Cure (April), The Immigrant (June), and The Adventurer (October). With these films Chaplin essentially perfected the form of the comedy short, influencing the work of comedians and directors for decades. People watch these comedy classics to this day. It’s true that his famous features were still ahead of him, but it can be truly said that the Mutual shorts are closer to those in quality than they are to his crude, early efforts. They represent a big leap forward.
2. In April, 1917, Buster Keaton stepped in front of the cameras for the first time, in the Fatty Arbuckle comedy The Butcher Boy. Keaton would come to prove himself silent comedy’s greatest genius (there I said it) within a few years. But the film is doubly significant for being Arbuckle’s first short made by his independent production company Comique, marking a great stride forward for him as well.
3. Stan Laurel (later of the team of Laurel and Hardy) released his first movie in July, 1917. We wrote about that film, Nuts in May, yesterday. 
4. In August 1917, Larry Semon, previously a director and gag man, began to star in his own Vitagraph comedies, becoming one of the top comedy stars of the late teens and early 20s — by some measures the top star during that period.

Before. After.

5. In September 1917, Harold Lloyd introduced his famous “glasses” character, in the short Over the Fence. Prior to this he had played a more clownish character called Lonesome Luke in his films. But it was his more realistic “boy with the glasses” character which would make him the top comedian of the 1920s.
6. In 1917, Mabel Normand (silent cinema’s top comedienne) filmed her first feature Mickey, released the following year. A smash hit, it too marked great strides forward for the early slapstick star. It was the high point of her career.
6. Towards the end of 1917, Mack Sennett  branded and began to hype his famous “Bathing Beauties”. This is what you might call a soft benchmark. He had presented early versions of this innovation in years previous. But from this point forward, he is more focused and aggressive about promoting the concept in his comedies.

Ben Turpin sends up Valentino in “The Shriek of Araby” (1923)

7. Also in 1917, Mack Sennett signed Ben Turpin, the famous cross-eyed comedian, who would become one of his top stars over the next decade.
For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy, including all these comedians, 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. 
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