Archive for comedy

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  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. 

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defying gravity in “The Matrimaniac”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For much, much more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Doodles Weaver: A Kook in Multiple Media

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

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

Weaver in “The Zodiac Killer”

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

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

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

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

Spoke Jones, left, Weaver. center

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

“A Day with Doodles”

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

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

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

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

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

The Hall of Plus-Sized Comedians

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

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

John Bunny (years active: 1909-1915)

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

Hughie Mack (years active 1915-1927)

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

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

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

Tons of Fun (years active: 1925-1927)

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

Oliver Hardy (years active: 1914-1951)

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

Lou Costello (years active: 1940-1959)

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

Jackie Gleason (years active: 1941-1987)

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

John Belushi (years active: 1975-1982)

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

John Candy (years active: 1973-1994)

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

Chris Farley (years active: 1990-1997)

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

Melissa McCarthy (ca. 2000 – present)

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

For much more on slapstick comedy please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Walter Forde: The “British Harold Lloyd”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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