Archive for comedy

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

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

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

1.Laurel and Hardy

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

2. The Three Stooges

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

3. Wheeler and Woolsey

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

4. The Marx Brothers

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

5. Hope and Crosby

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

6. Olsen and Johnson

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

7. Clark and McCullough

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

8. Abbott and Costello

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

9. Martin and Lewis

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

 

10. The Ritz Brothers

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

 

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

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Comedies of Wheeler and Woolsey

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by travsd

For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SEVEN of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), Peach O’Reno (1931), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.

At any rate, herewith their films:
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Rio Rita (1929)

The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles

The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.”  It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected  her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles).  Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.

Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande.  Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.

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The Cuckoos (1930)

Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.

The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).

Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and  the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.dixiana-lobbycard

Dixiana (1930)

Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of travelling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description .

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.

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Everything’s Rosie (1931)

One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman.  Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.

Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version.  Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter CatlettGeorge Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment.  But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.

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Cracked Nuts (1931)

Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in trhe depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.

The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler falls in love with debutante Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her mother (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!

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Caught Plastered (1931)

In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)

An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts. 

Peach O’Reno (1931)

I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.

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Girl Crazy (1932)

The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)

In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

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So This is Africa (1933)

Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.)  A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.

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Diplomaniacs (1933)

This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel** number! Contains a few likable songs.  Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).

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Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!

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Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

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Kentucky Kernels (1934)

This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat

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The Nitwits (1935)

Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and  the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit.  Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…

Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:

The Rainmakers (1935)

Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.

Silly Billies (1936)

A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists!

Mummy’s Boys (1936)

A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!

On Again-Off Again (1937)

A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.

High Flyers (1937)

The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W plays a couple of phony pilot who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey.

There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Glenn Tryon: Forgotten Silent Screen Comedian

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by travsd

Idaho-born Glenn Tryon (Glenn Monroe Kunkel, 1898-1970) had worked in vaudeville and the regional melodrama stage when Hal Roach hired him in 1923 to fill the void at his studio left by Harold Lloyd, who had departed to make features. He was a good looking leading man type, on the small side, and was adept at playing romantic light comedies with a bit of slapstick. He starred in Roach two-reelers for four years, and early on, backed Stan Laurel in shorts like The Soilers (1923) and Smithy (1924). Lloyd was to remake Tryon’s The White Sheep (1924) at feature length as The Kid Brother (1927). Tryon has a cameo as himself in Harry Langdon’s Long Pants (1927). 

From 1927 through 1932 he starred in features, often comedies at first, but increasingly westerns and B movies adventures in the sound era.  He co-starred with Merna Kennedy in three features in 1929 (Broadway, Barnum Was Right and Skinner Steps Out), immediately after she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). 

From 1933 through the end of the 1940s he amassed credits as a screenwriter, director and producer, contributing to many notable projects. He contributed to the screenplay for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933), the musical Roberta (1935), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and the Marx Brothers Room Service (1938), and was associate producer on Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) and Keep ’em Flying (1941) and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941). On the latter picture he met Jane Frazee, to whom he was married from 1942 through 1947. (His previous wife was stage and silent screen actress Lillian Hall, who ended her career in 1924 when she married Tryon, then a rising star).

Among Tryon’s more interesting projects from the 40s were a couple of anti-Hitler comedies, made as “streamliners” for Hal Roach. He produced The Devil with Hitler in 1942; and That Nazty Nuisance in 1943.

Late in his career, he went before the camera three more times. He played George White in George White’s Scandals (1945), appeared in the musical Variety Girl (1947), and has a small role in Home Town Story (1951). Sometime after this he appears to have retired to Florida, which is where he passed away in 1970.

For more on early silent and slapstick 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. 

Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comediennes, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), PLUGS, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Some things are just self-evident; one of these verities is that if Steve Massa has something to say, we want to hear it, and I’m pretty sure our readers do too, whether it’s in person at the Silent Clowns Film Series he co-produces with Bruce Lawton and Ben Model; or the blog entries he writes that illuminate the collections of the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, where he works; or his great books like Lamebrains and Lunatics and his biography of screen comedian Marcel Perez.

I couldn’t have been more excited when I first heard he was working on his new book Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. For many reasons. One is that there’s a serious void in that area, both in terms of scholarship and in published material. Two, is that I knew that there was a serious story out there worth telling, largely because of Massa’s previous work in this area, along with his Silent Clowns cohorts. My own post on the topic owes much to their tutelage (as does plenty of content on this site, for that matter). Figures he and they have championed like Alice Howell and Alberta Vaughn mightn’t even made it to my radar if not for those guys. Third, I knew that he’s got terrific access to important collections and he’s like a kid in a candy store when let loose in archives others have barely even looked at. Enthusiasm breeds discovery. And, lastly, because he’s extremely good at capturing the personalities of performers, of making their work as comedians and artists come alive on the page, which is one of the hardest jobs of a critic.

So, I was anticipating all that, and he didn’t let me down. What I did NOT expect is the size of the haul he would come back with in his fishing net. I’m not sure what I assumed; I guess that it would be a book that focused on one area of information (female funny ladies) he had already made us aware of, but with more depth. In other words, it would mostly contain new information about artists who were already familiar to me. But it’s much more than that. The book introduces the reader to scores of other actresses and comediennes of the silent era that I swear I’ve not previously encountered anywhere else, in addition to all the well-known names. It’s over 600 pages long. The scholarship in this book is important; maybe even revolutionary. It’s the kind of book that is destined to eventually give birth to hundreds of other books and articles and scholarly papers. It’s going to be an important reference not just to silent cinema and comedy scholars and enthusiasts, but for feminists and women’s studies authors as well — maybe them above all, but hopefully not. My hope would be that in the long run it’s going to help rewrite the entire narrative of silent comedy history more completely, and increase our understanding of what went down a century ago. I tend to think of Melissa McCarthy as a revolutionary screen figure, but she had many comedy grandmothers whose tombs have long been covered up by the shifting sands of time. Massa’s brought them back into the light.

Further, he’s broken the book down into useful categories, for there were many different kinds of comedy actresses: some were slapstick stars themselves, some were leading ladies to comedians, some specialized in stereotypical ensemble characters, some were mere visual jokes, some were there to be sex objects. And some were auteurs who produced and directed their own films (ironically it was easier for women to do that in the silent era than in later times). I’m not going to bore you by listing a lot of unfamiliar names here.  But I will be one of the ones who brings some of those names to you in the coming months and years, as I begin to follow Massa’s map and discover the work of these comediennes myself and form my own impressions. The book will also help enhance and correct many of my existing posts based on older sources which I know will not be authoritative as Steve’s. But don’t wait around for my tardy, second hand accounts. You owe it to yourself — NOW — to get your hands on the mother lode, familiarize yourself with its contents, and keep it at the ready for future reference. Buy Slapstick Divas now. Get it here at Bear Manor Media.

Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy”: Gave As Good As She Got

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Vivian Vance (Vivian Robert Jones, 1909-1979) has a birthday today. I wrote about Vance’s three I Love Lucy co-stars ages ago; there’s a reason I’m only getting around to her now. Her background was quite a bit different than Lucille Ball’s, Desi Arnaz’s or William Frawley’s. Though she did appear in Broadway musicals, unlike the others she was not a creature of vaudeville, night clubs, or dance chorus lines. She was studious, serious about her art.

She was originally from Cherryvale, Kansas, where one of her childhood friends was Louise Brooks. Later she moved to Independence and studied drama with William Inge and Anna Ingleman. Next came Albuquerque, and then finally, New York, where was able to study with Eva La Gallienne. 

Her first Broadway show was Music in the Air (1932-1933); she was in the vocal ensemble. Then came two Cole Porter hits. She was in the original production of Anything Goes (1934-1935) as Babe, and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the lead part of Reno Sweeney. (See photo above; that is a good match for an understudy). She was also in Porter’s next show Red, Hot and Blue (1936-1937), also with Merman, as well as Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. She replaced Kay Thompson in Hooray for What (1937), and continued to work steadily on Broadway throughout the next decade, culminating with a revival of The Cradle Will Rock in 1947.

“Hands off, Grandpa!”

She moved to Hollywood after that, getting one tv part and two small roles in movies before she was spotted in a play at La Jolla Playhouse and cast in I Love Lucy (1951-57). Typically this “fourth spot” in a two pair sit-com group dynamic is the weakest one, a “last but least role” (e.g. Joyce Randolph in The Honeymooners). But Vance was bursting with liveliness and personality. To this day she has a huge fan base; she’s certainly as beloved as any of the other three. (Well, to be fair, who’s going to bat for William Fawley?)

A smile to light up a room

There was a certain awkwardness to her casting, however. Lucy was only two years younger than she was; and Frawley was over 20 years older than she. To be named “Ethel” is like a code word for “frumpy friend”. Vance had a matronly appearance and was filling out at this point in her life. Many assumed she was of Frawley’s generation, an impression helped by the occasional allusions on the show to the pair’s “vaudeville days”. Vance’s sharp way with a line, and her hilarious dismissal of Fred’s wishes on most occasion was a key part of the show’s formula, and apparently rooted in some reality. The pair didn’t like each other. He was stung by her cracks about his age, so he decided to cast her as an inexperienced, untalented greenhorn, and berated her on that basis. At that point she had been in show business for 20 years, but Frawley had been performing for over 40. So she called him a dinosaur; he called her “a sack of hammers”. This was offscreen. They disliked each other so much, Vance turned down a chance to co-star in a sit-com with Frawley. She was that glad to be rid of him.

As so often happens to tv stars, the public forever closely associated Vance with the part of Ethel, and most of her work going forward was to be Lucy-based: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1972), and Lucy Calls the President (1977), one of her last roles. But she did occasionally get other work. She was a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (1960-1964), she’s in the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965), and The Great Houdini (1976), the made-for-tv bio pic starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch. 

She was only 70 when she died of cancer.

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.

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’re in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

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