Archive for comedy

Stars of Slapstick #226: Walter Forde

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film 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.

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

To find out more about vaudeville and show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new 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

On Another Famous Davis: Jack, of “Our Gang”

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Jack Davis (1914-1992) has a birthday of April 5. Not to be confused with another famous Jack Davis, the Mad Magazine illustrator, whom we’ll undoubtedly get around to celebrating at some point. This Jack Davis is related to another well-known Davis, but (amusingly) NOT Bette Davis, who also has an April 5th birthday and whom we just done writing about. This Jack Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for several years prior to becoming his wife.

Mildred’s career had begun in 1916. Her boss Hal Roach was just launching Our Gang in 1922 when 8 year old Jack was thrown into the mix, usually playing tough bully characters. He was featured in some 19 comedies (with some of the footage recycled in some later shorts). Lloyd married Mildred in 1923. and packed the poor kid off to military school, thus ending the careers of two members of the Davis family at the same time. I hope they were grateful! (Actually, Jack, now known as John, probably was — he ended up being a prominent doctor). Davis also somehow found time to play bit parts in films and on tv from the early 1940s through the mid 1980s.

Davis’s  daughter Cindy married Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, also an actor. Their children and and grandchildren carry on the family business.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

These Are The Baseball Comedies!

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sport & Recreation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2017 by travsd

It’s MLB opening day; time finally for our survey post on baseball centered movie comedies. It is meant to a part of a series on sports comedies; we did one on football, and one on golf…I imagine we’ll eventually get around to them all if we live long enough, although you may want to tune out before we get to curling.

Over the Fence (1917)

Harold Lloyd’s first “boy in glasses” comedy. He and co-star Snub Pollard play two store clerks who are butting heads over the same girl (Bebe Daniels). When Snub steals Harold’s baseball tickets and brings Bebe to the game himself, Harold one-ups him by sneaking into the locker room, suiting up, and pitching a winning game. For good measure, he beats up Snub and the entire baseball team, and, needless to say, wins the heart of Bebe.

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Speedy (1928)

Harold Lloyd plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold gets fired from the soda fountain and becomes a tax driver and has to rush Babe to a game).

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The Cameraman (1928) 

One of the highlights of this Buster Keaton comedy is a scene where news photographer Buster goes to Yankee Stadium to cover a game…but it turns out to be an “away” day. Undaunted, he mimes an entire baseball game by himself, an homage to the famous circus clown Slivers Oakley.

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Joe E. Brown‘s “Baseball Trilogy”

Joe E. Brown had actually been a professional baseball player in his youth (in the summer, when vaudeville theatres were closed). It was inevitable when he became a huge comedy star that he do some baseball comedies. The three films he made with baseball settings are informally known as the “trilogy” only because there are three of them; they don’t tie together in any way, and weren’t meant to.

Fireman, Save My Child (1932)

In this one, Brown plays a small town fireman who loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy.  Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.

Elmer the Great (1933)

This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player from rural Indiana. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end. One of his best comedies, with a bast that includes Sterling Holloway, Douglas Dumbrille, Frank McHugh, J. Carrol Naish, George Chandler and Gale Gordon.

Alibi Ike (1935)

Based on a short story written by Ring Lardner. Brown as a terrific bush-league pitcher who joins the Chicago Cubs (coached by William Frawley). His nickname comes from his crazy excuses for foibles like lateness and irresponsibility. A very young Olivia de Havilland, in one of her first roles, plays his exceedingly fetching love interest. The main theme  is that he insists he has no time for women but he totally falls for de Havilland – -and the other guys in the club keep razzing him and trying to catch him out. Then some crooks purporting to be the “Young Men’s High Ideals Club” want him to throw the game. The couple are about to get married but then she hears him boasting to the guys that he doesn’t really want to, he’s just doing it because he feels sorry for her. She leaves town in a huff.  Unhappy about it, Ike loses a game. The team management is suspicious that he threw it.  Being Alibi Ike, he claims that he was alright, so that makes them even more suspicious. Then the crooks hand him money—they think they threw it too. He is fired from the team. Then they relent but now he’s mad and won’t come back. He wants to get his girl back. But he has to play again so people won’t think he’s crooked. Meanwhile the criminals think he’s going to throw another game. Learning that he really doesn’t mean to, they kidnap him. He escapes, and goes to his usual crazy lengths to make it to the field and win the big game. A funny one, and a big hit with audiences in 1935.

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One Run Elmer (1935)

Buster Keaton short for Educational Pictures. Buster has a gas station (a pump and a shack) in the middle of the Arizona desert. The crux of the film is Buster and a rival gas station owner (and their respective amateur teams) play an unfriendly game in order to win a girl’s hand. A particularly funny sequence has Buster’s shack become entirely demolished from stray balls as the team practices. Naturally, Buster’s team wins.

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“Who’s On First”

Abbott and Costello performed this famous burlesque routine thousands of times on stage, radio and television and in the films One Night in the Tropics (1940) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). It is the teams best known routine, adapted from a pre-existing sketch written by other people.

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It Happens Every Spring (1949)

Ray Milland plays a college professor who invents a solution that repels wood. Thus, when a baseball is covered with it, a bat can’t hit it. Naturally, he uses this power to become a big league baseball pitcher! The lovable lummox Paul Douglas plays his coach. Directed by comedy veteran Lloyd Bacon. 

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Kill the Umpire (1950)

Another one directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by the great Frank Tashlin, this one has the heir of inevitability about it and has a genuinely hilarious premise. William Bendix (who’d plays Babe Ruth a couple of years earlier) is a former baseball player who hates umps so badly he can’t even hold down a jump — of any sort. Then his father-in-law (a former ump) makes him go to umpire school and become an ump! As we all know umpires are among the most irrationally hated people on the planet. There’s something existential about the predicament. Does he learn something about how unfair he was? What do you think? Una Merkel plays his long-suffering wife.

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Angels in the Outfield (1951)

A classic of course! Paul Douglas returns to the dugout as a nasty, mean manager — until an angel arrives and gets him to turn his losing streak around by using sugar instead of vinegar. Janet Leigh plays the love interest, a lady sports reporter.

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Rhubarb (1951)

In this wacky family comedy, a cat inherits a professional baseball team and the manager (William Frawley) is allergic to cats! Fortunately, team publicist Ray Milland is around to smooth down Rhubarb’s fur. (Rhubarb is the cat, named after baseball slang for an on-field argument).

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“You Gotta Have Heart!”

Damn Yankees (1958)

I’m afraid I find it pretty irresistible. As an aging male with a spreading paunch it’s hard not to identify with the couch potato who gets a magical chance to be 22 again and a baseball hero to boot. I have to admit I even really like the song “Ya Gotta Have Heart”. I’m not normally a fan of modern musicals but I have a weakness for this one.

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Bad News Bears and sequels (1976)

The quintessential Little League comedy. It was an important movie of my childhood; I blogged about it at length here.

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The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)

A comedy about the Negro Leagues, starring Richard Pryor (just when his career was exploding), James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams. It was co-produced by Berry Gordy’s Motown productions, a fitting follow-up to Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975).

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The Slugger’s Wife (1985)

This one sank like a stone when it first came out and has never been retrieved from the bottom of the lake. Penned by Neil Simon and directed by Hal Ashby (his penultimate feature), it’s a romantic comedy about a baseball player (Michael O’Keefe, best remembered as the unfunny one from Caddyshack) and a singer (Rebecca de Mornay).

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Brewster’s Millions (1985)

Crappy eighties comedy made out of a perennial decades-old stage comedy which I blogged about here. For little discernible reason (other than perhaps Richard Pryor’s resemblance to Reggie Jackson) the story has been transferred to a baseball setting in this scenario, and there are several baseball scenes, but it has little to do with the main plot of a dude who looks to inherit a super-bundle if he can spend a regular bundle. The presence of John Candy is always welcome.

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Bull Durham (1988)

I saw this one when it came out and have always found it pretty inoffensive. It’s a light romantic comedy about a minor league baseball team and a a love triangle involving Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins butting heads over baseball groupie Susan Sarandon. It’s the film on which the latter two, who later married, met, and it’s also the movie that sort of put Robbins on the map and established his screen persona as an amusing jerk. It’s the first movie I noticed him in, although he had been in the earlier Top Gun (1986), which I’d also seen.

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Major League (1989) and sequels

I saw the first one at some point after it came out, and despite the fact that it was a monster office box office success, disliked it pretty strenuously (hence never bothered with the sequels). It’s a film of what I call “the darnedest baseball team ever” genre, about a bunch of misfits going on to win the big game. Such things reply on either/both 1) clever, original gags; and 2) the chemistry of an amazing cast. This has neither. I never wanted to look at Charlie Sheen, and he is the star. If Charlie Sheen is the guy doing the comedy, I’m holding my sides for reasons other than laughter.

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A League of Their Own (1992)

I’m glad this movie (about an all-female baseball league) exists, but don’t find it to be the classic that it’s reputed to be, or deserves to be. Despite the all-star cast, Penny Marshall’s direction is mediocre and facile; it doesn’t offend me particularly, but it’s nothing I ever need to see again, and that’s not a ringing endorsement.

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Mr. Baseball (1992)

A culture clash comedy in which Tom Selleck is traded to a Japanese professional team and “forced to play” in — gasp — Japan!

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The Comrades of Summer (1992)

More baseball culture clash! A tv movie set a few years earlier during the Cold War. Coach Joe Montegna takes a job in the USSR where he coaches the first Soviet baseball team.

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The Sandlot (1993) and sequels

David M. Evans wrote, directed and narrated this nostalgic film, set in 1962, about a bunch of kids, their dog and pick-up baseball games. It owes more than a little to Jean Sheperd’s A Christmas Story.

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Rookie of the Year (1993)

A fantasy comedy in which a 12 year old kid is hired to be a professional big league pitcher because of a freak situation in which his tendons have healed too tightly after an accident, giving him the ability to throw a ball with amazing speed and power. It’s a remake of 1954 comedy called Roogie’s Bump. 

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Angels in the Outfield (1994) and sequel

Disney remake of the 1951 classic starring Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, and a then unknown Adrien Brody and Matthew McConaughey. 

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The Scout (1994)

Albert Brooks is the titular MLB baseball scout in a role originally intended for Rodney Dangerfield. A perfect role for Brooks, though, who helped get it made and contributed to the screenplay. And lots and lots of cameos by real life sports figures. Directed by the one and only Michael Ritchie, who made the original Bad News Bears. 

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Summer Catch (2001)

Freddy Prince Jr. as a Cape Cod minor league player who has a chance to make it to the big leagues. Despite quite a few big names in the cast, this film has only an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Mr. 3000 (2004)

Bernie Mac as a vain, selfish baseball pro who retires when he thinks he has achieved a record-breaking 3,000 hits…but has to get back in the game at age 47 when he learns that, due to a counting error he had only hit 2,997.

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Fever Pitch (2005)

A Farrelly Brothers comedy, with Jimmy Fallon as a guy who’s such a Red Sox fan that his obsession puts his relationship with ultimate catch (Drew Barrymore) in serious jeopardy.

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Bad News Bears (2005)

On the face of it, it sounds promising. Who better than Richard Linklater to make a remake of the Bad News Bears? A whole subplot of his Dazed and Confused (1996) overtly evokes the former film. But then we come back to our first, inevitable question: why attempt to re-make perfection? Nowhere to go but down. So there’s that, and the fact that, in an apparent attempt to update the comedy, Billy Bob Thornton is in his disgusting mode, doing the same gross, objectionable shit he did in Bad Santa (2003). Unaccountably, some people like this kind of thing, but I avoid it all costs.

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The Benchwarmers (2006)

Dennis Dugan directed Rob Scheider, David Spade, and Jon Heder in this critically panned comedy about a bunch of adult nerds who are bad at sports yet for some reason feel compelled to play them. Here on planet earth, the beautiful thing about being a grown-up is you don’t have to do that.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

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

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

 

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

Universal 

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

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

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

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

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

(20th Century) Fox

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

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

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

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

Paramount 

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

Columbia

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

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

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

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

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

RKO

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

Warner Brothers

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

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

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians.

Odds and Ends

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

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

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

Jackie Vernon: The Offbeat Comic Who Played Frosty the Snowman

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by travsd

HAPPY BOITHDAY!

Like most people my age and younger, I have always known Jackie Vernon (Ralph Verrone, 1924-1987) for one thing: his voice-over performance as the title character in Rankin-Bass’s 1969 Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. He makes an impression in the role; even as a kid I noticed the heavy New York accent and the fact that the performer’s line readings seemed rather non-actorly.

It turns out Vernon was a highly influential night club comic who started out in strip joints in the 1950s and worked his way up to Vegas, tv variety and talk shows, and a series of popular albums, like A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night (1964), A Man and His Watermelon (1967), The Day My Rocking Horse Died (1969), and Sex is Not Hazardous to Your Health (1972).

This is decades before Gallagher, and just as inexplicable

The titles of these albums give some indication of his sense of humor, which was full of non sequitur and strangeness. Before he was a comedian he was a trumpet player, and he often carried one onstage with him, just as Jack Benny and Henny Youngman carried violins. Like them, he would seldom play his instrument, and if he did, it was bad. I find it SO perfect that the concept is “updated” to a trumpet, though, the hippest instrument of the be bop era. Appropriately, there is also something avant-garde about his material, which was downbeat, deadpan, and monotonic in a way that anticipated Steven Wright. Short and fat, he described himself as someone who liked to spend parties in the coat room, and go to bus stations and pretend he was going places. Many of his routines were built around the concepts of travel and vacations. His most popular ones were presented as “slideshows”; he would pretend to use the clicker and narrate the images, but things would always be quietly, matter-of-factly, wrong. The tour  guide would sink in quicksand; the Grand Canyon would be closed. His hometown was on a one way street; if you missed it, you had to go all the way around the world to get back. (I did a similar slideshow routine once as a teenager; I’m wondering retrospectively if I’d been inspired by a tv appearance of Vernon. Don’t worry — mine had a distinctive, highly original twist).

Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin were all fans and booked him repeatedly. In the ’60s he was especially popular at hip clubs like the Hungry i in San Francisco and the Blue Angel in New York. He was often on Hollywood Squares. But other than Frosty, he wasn’t often employed as an actor. He has a small role in Jimmy Breslin’s mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), he does a bit of stand-up in Amazon Women in the Moon (1987)….but he does have a starring role in one film, and I cannot wait to watch it. It’s a 1983 horror movie called Microwave Massacre. I intend to watch it within hours.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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