Archive for director

Why Most of the Time Frank Capra was Not “Frank Capra”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

It’s film director Frank Capra’s birthday. This post has come about because in recent years I’ve filled out my Capraducation some — I’ve seen a bunch of his more obscure movies from early and late in his career. Once you do that, Capra’s “voice” becomes more diffuse. It becomes harder to say what it is.

It’s become idiomatic: “A Frank Capra movie”. Most people think they know what they mean by the phrase, and the idea that they have, I’ll bet, is coherent. It’s based on a handful of his best known and best loved movies, which will generally consist of the Capra movies most people have seen, chiefly: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Nowadays, many would call It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite and I’ve even heard some ostensibly knowledgeable commentators call it the most representative Capra movie. I would have to disagree. In my book, the two most perfectly constructed distillations of the Capra Idea are Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith…the little guy going up against huge, apparently unbeatable and malevolent forces and winning. In the case of Mr. Deeds it’s an ethic of generosity vs. cynical greed. In Mr. Smith it’s the application of power towards the common good vs. power for its own sake. It would be hard for me to pick which is my favorite. Some days, the first, other days, the second.

“Mr. Smith” — the Capra template

At any rate, while the other films I just mentioned may come close to the ideal in philosophy and tone, they deviate in structure. The stage version of You Cant Take It With You was much different; Capra kind of wrestled it into a message picture he was more comfortable with for the screen version, and it’s a little inorganic. Meet John Doe is very dark; it lacks the affirmation we get from Deeds and Smith. There is an 11th hour reprieve in the film but it is a small one and we emerge full of doubt about the goodness of The People. It’s a Wonderful Life is also pretty dark; it’s about a man’s inner battle between his own self-interest and the sacrifices he makes for the good of those around him. It’s an excellent movie (Capra justifiably thought that it was his best) but I wouldn’t call it representative of the Capra Idea — that’s my point.

Still these are the five I would call the most Capraesque in that sense. Yet Capra made close to 40 Hollywood features, and another dozen or so documentary films and industrials besides. Most of these films are not “Frank Capra films” in the commonly used sense. Some come close: I’d have to include The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932), Platinum Blonde (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) and State of the Union (1948) in a slightly expanded circle, dealing as they do with fraudulence and values in America (most of them in the context of the Depression). He’s constantly asking, “What matters most in this world? Fame and riches? Or being a right guy?”

I haven’t seen all of his films, but of the ones I’ve seen the remainder are quite a grab bag. There are his two silent comedy vehicles for Harry Langdon, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), generally conceded to be among the greatest of silent comedy features. (Capra got his start in silent comedy as a gag writer for Our Gang!) There’s the Joe Cook starring vehicle Rain or Shine (1930), also essentially a straight up “comedian comedy”. Dirigible (1931) is a fictional adventure story about a race to the South Pole in a hot air balloon. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Lost Horizon (1937) have (probably unintentional) racist overtones that seem to oddly point the way to his anti-Japanese propaganda films of WWII. Broadway Bill (1934) is a horse racing story; he later remade it as Riding High (1950). Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is just a straight-up farcical comedy with no social dimension at all.

Interestingly, although so many now love It’s a Wonderful Life, it bombed when first released. It was both a financial disaster and a crisis of confidence for Capra that he never completely recovered from. I theorize that 1946 audiences found it intolerably old-fashioned and sentimental. To us, it seems timeless. But in 1946, the cutting edge was movies like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra was now at sea. I happen to like State of the Union (1948), a story of political corruption not unlike Meet John Doe. But everything after that is both feeble and pretty hard to take. Of his four remaining features, two are remakes of previous Capra hits (Broadway Bill as Riding High; Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles [1961]). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom [1951]) star Bing Crosby. A Hole in the Head (1959) is the most interesting and easiest to take of the bunch, although it’s slow moving and lacks the sort of sparkle that once came easily to him.

Capra remained healthy and alert well into the 1980s. I loved his autobiography and I often used to think “What a shame he could’t get funding for pictures, he had at least another couple of productive decades in him.” But then I went and watched (or tried to watch) his last movie Pocketful of Miracles the other day, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and I was like “Oooooh! This is why.” And I’m more than okay with the fact Capra made no further movies. It seems as though, in his best pictures, i.e., the Depression era message movies and his Why We Fight series of WWII documentaries, he had something to push back against. An epic sized villain. Lady for a Day had made sense in the context of the Depression, but as a period piece I found Pocketful of Miracles screechingly, unwatchably bad, just woefully out of step with the times, full of patronizing, rose-colored, romanticized portrayals of homeless people and gangsters. I sort of wanted to throw up from the first frame. And, listen, I’m plenty sentimental. I watch Capra’s movies from the 30s and weep.

The last Hollywood film Capra worked on was the sci-fi astronaut story Marooned, which he was originally to direct. He quit the project due to budgetary frustrations. The film was finally made by John Sturges and released in 1969. A lot of his final movies were science related documentaries and industrials. By training he was an engineer.

So we return to my original thesis. Most of Frank Capra’s movies are not “Frank Capra” movies. Those constitute a minority within his body of work.

Leonard Sillman: The Man Behind “New Faces”

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Several years ago I acquired a box of old theatre books that someone was discarding. Tucked in the pages of one of them, presumably as a bookmark, was a xeroxed program for a show called New Faces of 1952. This was my first awareness of Leonard Sillman (1908-1982).

I’m not a collector; in fact I actively try NOT to collect (however, books do seem to accumulate). But I understand why others  collect. There is a magic to stuff. Facts that you hear or read about feel theoretical. But when you can put your hands on something it becomes real. Here was a real old theatre program left by someone who had attended a Broadway show full on then-unknowns, “unknowns” among whom were Mel Brooks, Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence and Ronny Graham. “What a wonderful thing, I thought. Vaudeville was long dead in 1952, but Broadway still had this mechanism for introducing talent to the public in the form of these revues.”

The man responsible for the New Faces series, and much else, actually had a vaudeville background. He was 14 when he moved from his native Detroit to come to New York to love with an aunt and study dance with Ned Wayburn. He was only 16 when he replaced Fred Astaire in the road company of Lady Be Good. He performed in vaudeville for a bit with Frances Gershwin, sister of George and Ira, for a partner. He also appeared in three Broadway shows: Loud Speaker (1927), Merry-Go-Round (1927), and Polly (1929).

Then he headed out to Hollywood where he taught dance to movie performers, Ruby Keeler among them, and got bits parts in three films in 1933: Whistling in the Dark, Goldie Gets Along and Bombshell. It was there in 1933 that he also produced his first theatrical production Lo and Behold at the Pasadena Playhouse, featuring Eve Arden, Tyrone Power, Kay Thompson and Mr. Silliman’s own sister June Carroll. And Sillman performed in the show himself as well, as he often did throughout the years.

Sillman at Work

Lo and Behold was such a hit that he was able to bring it to Broadway under the title New Faces of 1934, and with new cast members, including Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca, with staging by Elsie Janis. The timing of this development is interesting. As we wrote here, the great Broadway revue series of the early 20th century were in their death throes when the Depression hit. Their aesthetics were old-fashioned; and the scale of the spectacle was becoming cost-prohibitive. This was like a passing of the torch. While Sillman himself was a dancer, and his shows certainly featured song and dance numbers, they didn’t have huge, expensive kickline choruses. Smart, sophisticated sketches, initially written by Sillman himself were the meat of it. Sillman was to create, produce and direct numerous such revues, many of them under the New Faces banner, through 1968! Some other “new faces” he introduced to Broadway included Van Johnson (1936), Irwin Corey (1943), Billie Hayes, Maggie Smith (both 1956), right down to Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein (both 1968). There was also a a film version, New Faces of 1937, with Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Parkyakarkus, Bert Gordon, and Harriet Hilliard, a radio version (1948), and a 1954 television version of New Faces of 1952. 

In addition to his revues, Sillman also produced and directed book musicals and straight plays, most of which weren’t as successful as his revues. His last Broadway credit as producer was a 1970 revival of Hay Fever featuring Sam Waterston and Shirley Booth that ran three weeks. Leonard Sillman had a good eye for talent.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Walter Forde: The “British Harold Lloyd”

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

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

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

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

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

Why You MUST See “Paradise Alley”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of stage and screen Renaissance man Hugo Haas (1901-1968). Haas is an intriguing cinematic figure whom I am only just now discovering for myself, and the process is giving me great joy.

Of German-Jewish parentage he was born in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time of his birth, but was incorporated into the new nation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Haas became a star of Prague’s National Theatre, and by the 1920s he became a popular film actor as well. In the mid-30s he expanded his reach, also become a successful film director. His biggest hit while still based in his native country was Skeleton on Horseback (1937) an adaptation of a play by Karel Capek, best known to many of our readers no doubt as the author of R.U.R. 

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Like so many others, Haas was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslavakia (1938-1939). It took several years for him to make his way to Hollywood, where he begins to show up as a character actor by 1944. He was successful as such for several years, in films like The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and King Solomon’s Mine (1950).

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But unlike many refugee film directors from France and Germany whom one might rate as his peers, Haas was unable to get a foothold with the major studios as a director. Nothing daunted, at a time when such risk-taking was rare, he poured his income from acting into his own independent films which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself, a series of seedy, gritty, sensationalist noir melodramas with titles like Pickup (1951), One Girl’s Confession (1953), and Bait (1954). The films were not highly-rated by the critics, but netted enough profit to keep him going as long as demand for B movies remained.

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By 1959, That B movie market had dried up, and he seemed to be at the end of the line. There seems to be some awareness of that in his last film Paradise Alley (completed 1959, released 1962). Much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a highly self-reflexive work, a kind of valedictory statement. And it has the kind of mix of intellectual pretension and seedy poverty row folk-art non sequitur that graces such wide-ranging films as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), and Utopia (1951) starring Laurel and Hardy.

Haas plays a once-famous German silent-film director named Mr. Agnus (Latin for “Lamb”, i.e. Christ), who moves into a slum neighborhood which evokes everything from Elmer Rice’s Street Scene to Dead End to the then-current West Side Story. Like the latter, it has a Romeo and Juliet thing going, with the star-crossed lovers played by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and Don Sullivan, star of such epics as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). The neighborhood is a seething cauldron of sex, hatred and violence. A gang of not-so-juvenile delinquents, all of whom seem to be about 47 years old, run around; one of them is played by Duke Mitchell, who’d co-starred in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla seven years earlier, but is ignominiously overshadowed by bigger stars in this film.

Amazingly, Paradise Alley does have a large number of well-known names in the cast, although at the time the film was made, most of them were either former stars or would only later come to have cults of fans in retrospect. And this really fuels the down-at-the-heels Hollywood magic of this film in a manner that recalls Sunset Boulevard. Morris’s parents are played by comedian Billy Gilbert and former silent star Corinne Griffith. Sullivan’s mother (and Gilbert’s enemy) is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton. Familiar character actress Almira Sessions is the landlady. Noir sexpot Marie Windsor is the provocative burlesque dancer just across the way. Silent comedian Chester Conklin, in one of his last roles, plays a retired Hollywood camera man; character actor Pat Goldin, best known from Jiggs and Maggie comedies, plays another retired film professional.

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These last two provide the engine for the film’s rather slight action. Haas (his name is a stand-in for Jesus, recall) gets it into his head to bring peace to the slums by pretending to make a film with Conklin and Goldin, casting everyone in the neighborhood, and making them say nice things to each other. (An oddly Catholic impulse I felt, in its formal ritualism leading to grace, though Haas was Jewish).  Further, there is no film in the camera, giving the entire charade an existential slant not unlike we get in the plays of Jean Genet.

In the end, a real Hollywood film producer played by William Schallert gets wind of the project, and decides to make a real film, and that’s where we get into some heady territory. Not only has peace been achieved, but the poor people of the ‘hood will now be on the payroll merely for existing. Is this communism? Utopia? Heaven? Then it gets trippier, when much like the Monkees movie Head, the last few moments of the film become a replay of the film’s first few moments, including theme song and credits: the film is a film of a film of a film of a film in an endless feedback loop.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s technical brilliance. Its aspirations are great, but so are its limitations. The dialogue is frequently bad, almost Ed Wood level in its inexplicable refusal to move the plot forward. Haas’s lines are often simply strange and clunky; after all English was Haas’s third language (at least). Directorially, the pace is often slow, stilted, and full of dead air, with no sense of urgency or narrative momentum. Though the cast is well known, most of them were character actors accustomed only to small parts. Ironically Paradise Alley may have given them the largest, most dramatically challenging roles of their careers, and many of them seem stretched beyond their abilities. And then there’s the fact that Haas seems incapable of refraining from weird, inappropriately sexual jokes and moments, including a gratuitous near-rape scene in the film’s opening minutes. Also I’m not sure, I have to watch it again, but I think one of the female characters is inexplicably played by a man in drag. All of this goes to explain why the film wasn’t released for nearly three years after it was made, and why it continues to be so rare today.

But it is now one of my favorite films. Paradise Alley somehow manages to incorporate nearly everything I love in the world into an exceedingly strange and cosmic fruit salad. Watch it here. 

King Baggot: One of Filmdom’s First Stars

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of King Baggot (1879-1948). I know — sounds like a good name for a Hobbit’s Doberman Pinscher. What he was, was one of the first movie stars whose name was promoted to the public, one of the biggest screen stars of the American cinema’s early years, and one of its top directors as well.

The son of Irish Catholic immigrants he started out working for his father’s St. Louise real estate film. But the Siren Call of the theatre was irresistible and he began barnstorming with Shakespearean stock companies, gradually working his way up to top outfits like the Frohman and Shubert companies. His one Broadway show was a 1906 production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. 

In 1909, on a lark he have the then-still-quite-new movie business a try, starring opposite Florence Lawrence in The Awakening of Bess at IMP Studios. She was to be his leading lady for two years, at which point he starred in numerous films opposite Mary Pickford. He starred in scores of movies in these early days, when most films were about ten minutes long. A well remembered early picture is his 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

He began writing films in 1911 and directing in 1911. In 1913, he directed and starred in a feature length Ivanhoe. The following year, he made Shadows, in which he played ten characters. In 1921, he stopped acting in order to concentrate on directing. Films of this period include Kissed (1922), Marie Prevosts’s one of first starring pictures; The Gaiety Girl (1924), Raffles (1925), and probably his best known film nowadays, William S. Hart’s last picture Tumbleweeds (1925). Baggot’s last film as director was Romance of a Rogue (1928).

Unfortunately just as the industry was transitioning into talkies, Baggott had developed a bad reputation in the business due to his drinking. At this stage, he was hired neither as a star nor as a director, and was simply a bit player, often only an extra. He continued to work until the end of his life, and in some classic films, but normally as an uncredited walk-on. (Look for him, for example, alongside W.C. Fields in Mississippi, since this is Fields Fest! Fields always had a soft spot for forgotten old stage veterans.)

To learn more about early film history 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 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.

Charley Chase: The Comedy of Embarrassment

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd

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Adapted from my book 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

When Charley Chase (born this day in 1893) arrived at the Hal Roach studios to become one the top Hollywood comedians of the 1920s, he already boasted an impressive resume. Chase had begun performing in vaudeville when still a teenager in his native Baltimore, doing Irish monologues, songs and dances. His travels then took him west, and he broke into movies at Universal Studios before moving to Mack Sennett’s Keystone in 1914. You can see the 21 year old (then still billed as Charles Parrott) in films like His New Profession, Fatty’s Suitless Day, and Love, Loot and Crash. Unlike, say, Harold Lloyd who played similar young man roles at Keystone around the same time, Chase makes an impression in his early films. He’s funny and you notice him. He was also in a hurry. The ambitious young man quickly moved up to assistant directing; by 1916 he was already helming his own movies for Sennett. Throughout the late teens and the beginning of the twenties he was building a reputation as a director, working with the likes of Billy West, Lloyd Hamilton and Carter de Haven.

During a hitch at Fox in 1917 he got his younger brother James employment there as an actor. James went to work for Roach before Charley did, joining the company in 1918 to play supporting roles for Harold Lloyd, Hank Mann, and others. By 1922, he was beginning to star in his own shorts under the name Paul Parrott. While James (Paul) was turning out a series of solid comedies, Charley had been hired by the studio in 1921 to direct a series of shorts starring Snub Pollard.  The following he oversaw the creation of the long-running Our Gang series.

In 1923 and 1924, the Parrott Brothers’ roles began to be reversed, with James spending more time behind the camera, and Charley relinquishing his role as Roach’s comedy supervisor to go in front of the camera as a star. And Chase was that: one of the most beloved stars of comedy shorts clear through the 1930s.

Even more than Lloyd (who left Roach in 1924 to star in features) Chase was to personify what the Roach aesthetic was all about. If Mack Sennett’s humor had been all about grotesque clowning, fake mustaches, and battered top hats, the Roach lot brought a new aesthetic of realism. And if Lloyd’s “Boy with the Glasses” had seemed normal compared to those antics, Chase’s character was even more recognizable as a real-life human being, lacking even the bookworm’s horn-rims and mock-heroic climaxes. His comedies have more in common with modern sit-coms than with knockabout or pantomime.

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Sons of the Desert

Granted, he was blessed with good comedy “equipment”. With his ram-rod posture and prissy face he stood out; that’s what had made him memorable even in small Keystone roles. But he also wore a basic business suit and combed his hair in a fashionable cut like a lot of people in his audience. The Twenties were a boom time in America; the new middle class was exploding. Chase represented a different slice of the public than Sennett’s blue collar buffoons. Though he had come from straitened circumstances himself (his father died when he was 16, leaving the family penniless) Chase almost never played farmers, plumbers or fry cooks. His characters tend to be bank clerks, office assistants and middle managers. As such, he generally had a stake in the community. Rather than going around causing trouble, his comedy was about trying to prevent it. In a Charley Chase film life often seems like a stream of unfortunate coincidences designed primarily to embarrass, incriminate, or otherwise inconvenience Chase in his bid to be a good solid citizen. Sometimes he gets humor from trying to put on a brave face and maintain appearances while this happens; other times he makes us laugh by blowing his stack. He was a little uptight; it could go either way — forced cheer or a blowing of the gasket. But what made him interesting was his contradictions. He possessed an unusual mix of grace, polish and awkwardness. Often he seems a “good time Charley”, striving to be the convivial life of the party (indeed that’s what he plays in his best remembered role, the drunken Shriner in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert). But only to the extent that such behavior would make him popular around the office.

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy? (1925)

What Price Goofy (1925) is typical of the “embarrassment” formula. Charley’s jealous wife (Katherine Grant) thinks he is cheating. He is most definitely not doing so but keeps coincidentally winding up in compromising positions with other women, being seen with them at just the right (wrong) moment. Forgotten Sweeties (1927) kind of flips that idea. He and his wife move into the same building where his old flame and her new husband now reside. Again, he keeps accidentally winding up in incriminating positions with the old girlfriend (and having to avoid her new husband so he won’t get the hell beat out of him).

Sometimes his compulsion to preserve “normality” seems less forgivable. In His Wooden Wedding (1925) a series of freak coincidences combine to convince him that his fiancé has a wooden leg. In a state of shock, he jilts her at the altar. We dislike him for this at first, but he redeems himself later by getting drunk and suicidal and declaring that she is “the greatest little woman in the world”.

Mighty Like a Moose

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Chase is all about appearances. Mighty Like a Moose (1926) is a sort of cross between The Gift of the Magi and Nip and Tuck. Both spouses get their turn to be mortified. Charley is a husband with a hilariously prominent pair of choppers—he looks kind of like Walt Disney’s “Goofy”. His wife (Vivien Oakland) has a nose as big as Lassie’s. Unbeknownst to each other, they each go out and get reconstructive surgery. Whereupon they meet each other and start flirting, not realizing that each is their actual spouse. It’s kind of like a cartoon. So what, if in the real world you have bruises and bandages after rhinoplasty and would most certainly recognize your own spouse whatever minor alterations have been made? Chase’s films are filled with similarly implausible episodes. You just have to go with it. For example, Limousine Love (1928) treats us to the deliciously far-fetched situation of a naked woman stepping into the backseat of Charley’s car to hide out while her clothes are drying. He doesn’t see her back there, and he is on the way to his wedding…

The universe depicted is one in which each next event will always be the thing Charley least wants to happen. The natural extension of that is to create gags that are not only unwelcome to Charley’s character but are so very unexpected they call attention to themselves purely for the entertainment of the audience. Chase’s films are often noted for such moments, which stretch believability past the breaking point and get us laughing at the refreshing audacity of their vision.

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One of the most famous of these is in All Wet (1925), in which his car gets stuck in a mud puddle so deep that Chase has to dive under the water like a frogman to repair the damage. (He would later revive this scene in the 1933 talkie Fallen Arches.) Bromo and Juliet (1926) has the unforgettable scene where he is on his way to his girlfriend’s amateur theatrical dressed as Romeo. His tights are stuffed with sponges to make him look muscular, and he accidentally walks through a field of active lawn sprinklers, making his legs swell up into a pair of lumpy corn dogs. In Fluttering Hearts (1927) he pretends a department store mannequin is his drunken date so he can access to a speakeasy. Later the girl he is wooing shows up and puts on the mannequin’s clothes, and Charley carries her out of the joint instead of the dummy, never noticing that she’s human.

Roach had started Chase off in a series one-reelers wherein he was usually billed as “Jimmy Jump”. A few months into the series, Leo McCarey (who, like Frank Capra had gotten his start with Roach writing gags for Our Gang) began directing many of Chase’s films. They expanded to two-reelers and that’s when the series really began to take off. You can see his distinctive mark in a film like Sittin’ Pretty (1924) which is famous for containing an early version of the “mirror scene” McCarey would later revive for the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

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Chase made out just as well in the sound era as he had in silents, his mellifluous voice suiting his comedy style perfectly. Apart from Modern Love, a half-silent/ half talkie he made for Universal in 1929, he never did properly crack features. But he continued to star in and direct comedy shorts for Roach and Columbia throughout the 1930s. Many made use of his pleasant singing voice and burgeoning songwriting talents. Not only did he star in such minor classics as Southern Exposure (1935) and Teachers Pest (1938), but he also was to direct some of the best films starring The Three Stooges. Sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1940, one year after the drug related death of his brother.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy including the great Charley Chase, see my book 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

Repose en Paix, Pierre Étaix

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd

Something fitting about Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix passing away within hours of each other. French clown, actor and comedy film-maker Etaix (1928-2016) was one of the happy discoveries I learned about when researching my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YoutubeI seem to recall first hearing about the artist from Steve Massa, and there was a big screening of his films (which had long been unavailable) at the Film Forum a couple of years ago.

Etaix is often associated with Jacques Tati (for whom he assistant directed, and with whom he got his start) but his character and his style are very different. He was also in the Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972), which it looks like we’ll all finally get to see at some point in the not too distant future. Etaix had many more screen credits as an actor than as a director. He only directed a few films; most of them are available on Youtube. I watched ’em all. This one is probably my favorite, and how perfectly timed for Hallowe’en (there’s more than a little Hammer Horror parody in the fantasy sequences here–very well done) . The film is called Insomnia (1961).  Even so, I hope you sleep well, grand-père drôle!

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