Archive for films

The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by travsd

Time once again to celebrate the birthday of Leonard “Chico” Marx (1887-1961). Today seems to me an appropriate time to float a notion I came up with the other day, a way of looking at the Marx Brothers films of the much-maligned MGM period (1935-1941.)

I hasten to point out that in no sense do I claim the ideas I am submitting are a real thing. They constitute a theory, not a thesis. It may be a useful lens for trying to understand these somewhat unfathomable years, when the team seemed to jettison the essence of what had defined their characters and comedy for most of their careers (around a quarter of a century) and to change into altered personas in new kinds of vehicles that didn’t suit them as well.

We begin with the observation that a shift in cultural taste was occurring in the late 1930s. Whether the shift was initiated by audiences or producers, or both in tandem, is unknown and maybe unknowable, but what we observe across the popular arts (movies, theatre, pop songwriting), is a movement away from the aesthetics of vaudeville (formal, stylized, artificial, surreal) and closer towards realism (literal, logical, comprehensible). I see several possible factors at play: a) the death of the big time vaudeville circuits in the early 1930s; b) the advent of talking pictures — the most accurate method of recording reality in history — in 1927; and c) the advent of radio, a medium that also exposed audiences to reality, in the form of extemporized performance.

Tastes seem to become more prosaic and less “smart”. Fantasia, clown make-up, verbal wordplay pass from the scene, to be replaced with plausibility and relatability. If Clark and McCullough and Wheeler and Woolsey represent the early ’30s, Bob Hope is the face of the end of the decade. He makes wisecracks but they are not TOO crazy. He’s a little goofy but not TOO strange-looking or acting. At the same time, there appears to be a trend away from the verbal, word-based joke (Burns and Allen) to those which de-emphasize The Word and replace it with, for lack of a better word, Funny Faces (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello). Settings for stories become less whimsical (Klopstokia) and more quotidian (a night club).

Amidst this time of transition, the Marx Brothers began the second phase of their movie career. The earlier, Paramount films (1929-1933) stuck to a formula consonant with their vaudeville and Broadway successes, highly surreal in character, and dominated by Groucho and Harpo. In 1935, through the influence of Chico, they signed with MGM, whose production head Irving Thalberg preferred to stress the importance of story. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that the zeitgeist seemed to overwhelm the team’s natural voice. And this is what I am calling “the Chico Period”. By using that term, I don’t mean that Chico is now suddenly the star of these pictures (A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West and The Big Store). Far from it. It’s that the new settings and style are most harmonious with, less catastrophic to, Chico’s character. In fact, in certain ways, at certain times, he comes out ahead, although the gains are brief and full advantage is never made of his being better suited to the changing milieu than his brothers.

One of these guys looks relatively real, and it’s not the one in the wig or the one with the greasepaint mustache

Granted there were deleterious changes to Chico’s character as well. Gone now were the avalanche of puns and misunderstandings derived from his traditional vaudeville dialect humor, which had been funny precisely because they were an implausible stretch. The accent remained, but his joke material now consisted mostly of “stupidity” and simple-minded malapropisms. But unlike Groucho, for example, his status does not fall. Groucho had been the boss or the guest of honor in the first five movies. In the MGM ones he tumbles down to Chico’s plane (in A Night at the Opera, quite literally — he is thrown down some stairs). Groucho had always been screwy, illegitimate and manipulative, but never seedy or low-rent. Chico had ALWAYS been seedy and low-rent. Unless you’re talking about mathematical computation, Chico is not the high brow of the Marx Brothers. These dumbed down new Marx Brothers movies seem to fit him better than the other two. A racetrack, dodging a hotel bill, these are Chico places and predicaments. In A Night at the Opera and The Big Store he is made to have a relationship to the ACTUAL Italy, an unprecedented amount of realism for a Marx Bros. picture, no matter how cockamamie. This is CHICO’s world. So much so that in A Day at the Races, At the Circus and Go West Chico actually bests Groucho in several swindles and other encounters. In At the Circus, he’s actually the guy who hires Groucho — THAT is the new dynamic.  And though Harpo is by far the most entertaining, the least compromised, in these later films he also doesn’t quite BELONG there. For better or worse, Chico belongs there.

Say, maybe it IS a fantasy — in real life, Chico would NEVER turn his back to the betting counter!

After the team broke up the first time (1941), Chico fronted his own big band, proving again that he was very in tune with the times. It was hip to be a musician in the ’40s. But his character was beginning to outlive its welcome, what with ACTUAL Italians like Lou Costello, Dean Martin, Tony Pastor (the singer), Vito Scotti, et al becoming popular on the radio and on movie screens. And at last we again reach a point where Groucho makes out better than Chico. After all, Groucho could grow a real mustache. Chico couldn’t become a real Italian.

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

At any rate, I offer this up merely as a way of looking at the team’s misguided last studio films. Nothing will make them less terrible, but they may possibly be made less inexplicable.

 

Frank Buck: Brought ‘Em Back Alive

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by travsd

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day; it also happens to be the birthday of Frank Buck (1884-1950). What an interesting American character!

Born and raised in Texas, Buck started out his working life as a cowpuncher. At the age of 17 he traveled with a herd by rail to the stockyards in Chicago, and decided to remain in the big city. While working as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel he met lady drama critic Amy Leslie, 29 years his senior, and the pair married. (The arrangement seems to have worked out for both of them — they remained hitched from 1901 to 1913).

In 1911, Buck took his winnings from a poker game and used it to finance an excursion to Brazil. While there, he trapped some exotic birds, which he brought back to New York and sold for lucrative sums. Trapping and caring for animals is something he had done for fun as a boy. Now he he began to do it in earnest. With the profits from the Brazil trip, he next went to Singapore, and then other parts of Asia, capturing all manner of creatures and bringing them back to sell in the U.S.

In 1923, he became on the the first directors of the San Diego Zoo, bringing to the table two Indian elephants, two orangutans, a leopard, two macaques, two langurs, two kangaroos, three flamingos, five cranes, and a python, all of which he had captured in the wild. After a few months, he was dismissed after repeated conflicts with the board of directors.

In 1930 he wrote his best selling book Bring ‘Em Back Alive, recounting his adventures. This was followed by a 1932 film and promotional radio show of the same name. Two other book-and-film projects followed: Wild Cargo (1932, book; 1934, film) and Fang and Claw (1935). He was to co-author five more books over the next decade.

In 1937, he starred in the B movie serial Jungle Menace, the only film in which he acted as a fictional character

In 1938, he and his creatures were the star attraction of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I love how the poster above stresses that the man himself, not just his animals, will be making a personal appearance.

The following year, he brought his animals to the 1939 World’s Fair.

The coming of World War Two prevented him from going out on expeditions during the 1940s but he continued to busy himself by writing more books, and appearing in numerous films as himself. The last of these was Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, which is, quite frankly, where I first heard of him and the reason why you are reading this blog post.

After his death in 1950, his fame continued to spread. In 1953, Bring ‘Em Back Alive was adapted into a Classics Illustrated comic book. In 1954, the Frank Buck Zoo opened in his home town of Gainesville, Texas. And in 1982 Bring ‘Em Back Alive became the inspiration for a tv series starring Bruce Boxleitner! Really, this is about as famous as an animal collector can possibly get.

Stars of Vaudeville #1036: Louise Beavers

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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MAX TERHUNE: WESTERN VENTRILOQUIST

Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

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.

Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

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Ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971) was born on this day. We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:

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Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1023: Geoffrey Kerr

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd
Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film "Once a Lady" (1931)

Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film “Once a Lady” (1931)

This is the natal day of Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971). Kerr was the son of character actor Frederick Kerr, best known perhaps today for playing Frankenstein’s father in the 1931 film. Kerr was a stage name; their actual surname was Keen. 

The younger Kerr began acting in his father’s London stage and (silent) screen productions following his service in World War One. In 1920, the Kerrs (both father and son) came to New York to appear in the Broadway production of Just Suppose with Patricia Collinge and Leslie Howard. The younger Kerr was to remain a constant Broadway presence through 1934. It was during this period that he also played big time vaudeville, including the Palace, circa 1926.

He appeared in three American talkies in 1931: Once a Lady, The Runaround and Women Live Once. By this time he was also transitioning into being a writer. That same year he also wrote and appeared in the Broadway play London Calling. From the mid 1930s through late 1940s, he was a Hollywood screenwriter. In the 1950s, he wrote scripts for British television. His son (with actress June Walker) was the actor John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy, South Pacific).

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

Stars of Vaudeville #1016: Ruth Chatterton

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by travsd

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Actress and author Ruth Chatterton (1892-1961) was born on this day. Born and raised in New York City, Chatterton was only a teenager when she secured her first professional stage work with a stock company in Milwaukee in 1908. By 1911. she was on Broadway, where she was to appear in a succession of plays through 1925, the biggest success of which was Daddy Long Legs (1914-1915 and 1918). She later returned to Broadway in the 1940s and early ’50s. It was during her stage years, that (like so many) she also appeared in big time vaudeville, performing at the Palace in 1927.

Her film career was launched in 1928 with the part-talking Sins of the Fathers with Emil Jannings. Other notable films included Madame X (1929), The Laughing Lady (1929) and Dodsworth (1936). By 1938 her screen career had petered out and that was when she made her return to the stage, and occasional television appearances. Throughout the 1950s, she reinvented herself as an author, penning four successful books.

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.

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