Archive for comic

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

How Laurel and Hardy Became a Team

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

339246_Laurel- Hardy- biographical film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With his hands full of Semon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“West of Hot Dog” (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their first scene together, six years prior to their teaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

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

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

Jack Waldron: The First Stand-Up?

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Stand Up, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

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Brooklyn’s own Jack Waldron (Jack Kestenbaum, 1893-1969) was born on this day. In vaudeville days, Waldron was a comic, singer and dancer with a team called Lockett and Waldron; he later worked with a succession of others partners including Betty Winslow, Myrtle Young, Emma Haig, and Harry Carroll; and was also briefly teamed with Shemp Howard in 1925.

Waldron had spots in four Broadway shows in the twenties: Flossie (1924), The Great Temptations (1926), Hello, Daddy (1928), and Woof Woof (1929-1930). He made two Vitaphone picture shorts: A Breath of Broadway (1928), and Radio and Relatives (1940). Throughout the 30s and 40s, he was mostly a night club comic and m.c., prized for his one-liners. As such he was highly influential; some have gone so far as to claim him as the first stand-up comedian, although the same claim has also been made about many earlier performers. Jack E. Leonard claimed to have patterned his rapid-fire insult style after Waldron, quoting him as saying to a heckler, “Let’s play horse. I’ll be the front end, and you just be yourself!”

In 1948 Waldron did The Ed Sullivan Show, his one tv spot. and then three Broadway shows in the 50s: Pal Joey (1952-53), The Pajama Game (1954-56), and The Vamp (1955). In 1961, the Sobels included him in their A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. And in 1969 he became Shepherd (president) of the Lambs, a post he held until he died.

You can see him in action in his Vitaphone A Breath of Broadway here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

Frank Fontaine: A Record of Hilarity

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of comedian Frank Fontaine (1920-1978).

Fontaine was a favorite comedian of my brother’s, and I first developed an appreciation for this artist in the same way I cultivated one for many other comedians and musicians: my older two brothers left behind their record collection when they moved out of the house. And one of the records was this:

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I must have listened to this exceedingly strange comedy record dozens and dozens of times trying to work out its mysteries. It was full of pops and scratches…my brother had clearly worn the album out himself.

As you can tell from the photos, Fontaine was not exactly a font of subtlety. He specialized in one particular character, a sort of brain-damaged, mentally challenged screwball. Originally from the Boston area, he began performing the character in amateur shows in the 1930s. Despite the strong visual impression you see on evidence in the pictures, he first gained show biz traction in radio. He won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and not long after that was booked for some small roles on The Jack Benny Program in 1950, returning several times through 1952. Then came television. His best known platform was The Jackie Gleason Show, where he played Crazy Guggenheim in the Joe the Bartender segments. To my eyes, his character looks like a sort of pre-cursor to many of Benny Hill’s,, with the addition of just a hint of pathos. Because, well, the guy’s not normal. 

The early fifties were sort of the height of his fame. He got some bit parts in movies, and he continued to work through the rest of his life appearing on tv variety shows, making live appearances and popular comedy records. He died at the age of 58 of a massive heart attack, altogether not such a surprising death for someone who put that much into his comedy.

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

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