Archive for TCM

Tonight on TCM: Classic Prison Comedies

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by travsd

All month long, TCM is devoting Tuesday nights to prison films. Tonight (actually the wee hours of tomorrow) they’ll have these three “comedy classics” with jailhouse settings.

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2:45am (EST): Jail Busters (1955)

The Bowery Boys. Not for the first time, the boys purposefully commit a crime so they can go undercover in jail to get the goods on a gang of crooks who are in there. It is a stupid plan of course! The guy who was supposed to have arranged everything (Lyle Talbot) is crooked himself and hangs the boys out to dry. Percy Helton plays the warden!

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4:00am (EST): Pardon Us (1931)

Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length film Pardon Us (1931), directed by James Parrott. The title is a joke—it’s a prison comedy. Get it? Pardon us? Watching this film, I’d not be a bit surprised to learn it was a major influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art the Thou? (Yes, yes, Sullivan’s Travels but also this). I think this movie is easily one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features.

The fact that the pair are incarcerated is a joint responsibility. The movie starts out with them buying ingredients for beer. It’s Ollie who gets the bright idea of selling their surplus homebrew, thus the crime is at his instigation. Later however it is Stanley who tries to sell some to a policeman (he thinks the uniform was that of a streetcar conductor).

A major theme throughout the film is Stanley’s bad tooth, which for some unnatural reason causes him to make a raspberry sound when he speaks, triggering all manner of trouble for the pair. There isn’t much of a plot, but this tooth noise, like a musical motif waves through the film and drives most of the action. This noise antagonizes guards, the warden, and the bull goose of their cell, who later respects him for it. They become involved in an escape plan; everyone gets caught right away but them/ They blend in with a bunch of black field hands on a cotton plantation by putting on blackface. Ollie even sings a minstrel song that Stan dances to. (It’s unfortunate to modern eyes, but there it is). In a scene of masterful tension, the warden’s car breaks down right where they’re standing, obligating the boys to fix the vehicle. They almost make it through the episode — until Stan’s tooth noise blows their cover. Later, back in prison, Stanley accidentally foils another prison break due to his mishaps with a tommy gun, and the boys are about to get an early release when…

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5:00am (EST) Hold ’em Jail (1932) 

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

For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

Tomorrow on TCM: 24 Hours of Vitaphones!

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by travsd

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Tomorrow, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Vitaphone, Warner Brothers’ revolutionary sound-on-disc system that finally meant the breakthrough of talking pictures, Turner Classic Movies will be showing over four dozen of these early talkies, produced from 1926 through the 1930s. The fun starts at 6am (that’s why I’m telling you about it now) and continues through the wee hours of the next day. In the prime time slot, starting at 8pm, my old pal Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project will guest host with Ben Mankiewicz, and give us his take on many of these old jewels, which he has been so instrumental in preserving and sharing with the world. Ron was extremely helpful to me in my research for my book No Applause circa 2003, and also took part in our 100th anniversary tribute to the Palace Theatre at the Players Club in 2013. 

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This was a highly experimental time; in this line-up you will find a surprising diversity of approaches to combining sound and picture. Some, like The Better ‘Ole (1926) starring Sydney Chaplin and Don Juan (1926) with John Barrymore are essentially silents, with a soundtrack of music and special effects. The groundbreaking The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson is about half “silent”, with only the musical numbers featuring sync sound. Some, like Art Trouble (1934) are straightforward narrative comedy shorts of the sort we associate with Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges (Art Trouble happens to star Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, and a very young Jimmy Stewart). And many of them — probably the bulk of them, given the crudity of the technology in the early days — are just straightforward records of vaudeville acts, the kind of thing Jim Moore and myself paid tribute to with our “Vaudephone” series. Needless to say, I should hope, some of these old Vitaphones are often the best (and sometimes the only) place to see actual vaudevillians do their thing. This is why, for vaudeville fans, this program is not to be missed. Record them all now — watch them at your leisure!

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Burns and Allen at their peak, and fresh as a daisy, in their sketch “Lambchops”

If you aren’t up for 24 hours of film watching (wimp!) here are some special things to watch out for:

  • Not surprisingly, Ron will be presenting some of everybody’s favorites during his prime time slot. These are ones he frequently shows at his live screenings, and consequently some of the first ones I ever watched, and have watched the most. They include Rose Marie the Child Wonder (1929), starring Rose Marie (who’s still with us!) when she was a precocious, jaw-dropping child star; Lambchops (1929, my favorite of them all, starring the young, heartstring-pulling, PERFECT Burns and Allen); and the hilarious The Happy Hottentots (1930) starring the one and only Joe Frisco.
  • The musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). The Mad Marchioness blogged about that film here when she was still bloggin’
  • Some other key vaudevillians in the wee hours: Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields (1928), Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties (1929); Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1930); and a most interesting artifact, Butler and Brennan in You Don’t Know the Half of It (1929). This latter one is cool because it is one of our only ways to experience the seminal team of Savoy and Brennan, though it is only by proxy. Drag queen Bert Savoy was dead at this point, so his old partner Jay Brennan performs it with a woman named Ann Butler!
  • How to Break 90 #3 Hip Action (1933) will be a thrill for W.C. Fields fans — it’s a rare bit of arcana most of us have never seen, where a bunch of golf pros show their stuff and Fields cuts up for the camera
  • Ups and Downs (1937) features a very young Phil Silvers; Paree Paree (1934), a very young Bob Hope; Seeing Red (1939), a very young Red Skelton
  • The very first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not film (1931)
  • The Ingenues, The Band Beautiful (1928) is a very early recording of the all-girl band I wrote about here.

And this is only SOME of them! For playing times for the various film, and more information go here. I couldn’t be more excited.

Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: A Horror Grab Bag

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , on October 21, 2016 by travsd

Tonight on TCM, and into the wee hours of tomorrow, a continuation of their tidal wave of classic horror films for the Halloween season.

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8:00pm (EST): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

This is easily the least of the three major classic Hollywood adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influential horror tale. Far better are the silent one with John Barrymore and the 1932 Frederic March version. Still, this one remains worth watching at least once, and may be seen as a kind of indispensable experiment. This is the Spencer Tracy “realistic” version, directed by Victor Fleming. The make-up is much more subdued, as is Tracy’s performance as Hyde. There is a sort of quiet menace about the character, but it doesn’t really possess the scenery chewing one wants and expects. Tracy is best in the early scenes, when we get to know and like Jekyll. The dinner table scene where he defends his work always stands out in my mind. After the opening scenes, the screenplay clings VERY closely to the 1932 version, at times, almost like they were filming the same script, scene by scene. An unrecognizable Lana Turner plays Jekyll’s nondescript fiancé. Donald Crisp is her father (one of the film’s better elements). Ingrid Bergman is horrible as a dance hall girl, with her combination Swedish-Cockney accent. And silent film comedian Billy Bevan is a lovable cop!

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10:00pm (EST): Eyes Without a Face (1960)

A French/Italian co-production about a mad plastic surgeon who steals the faces of kidnapped women in order to graft them onto the face of his daughter, whose face was destroyed in an accident. The titular faceless faces are masks, which the women wear to hide the atrocities beneath. That’s the cool part but it wears thin quickly. It sounds more exciting than it plays out.

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11:45pm (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.

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1:15am (EST): Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)

A Technicolor 3-D remake of  The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) done very much in the style of House of Wax (1953), with Karl Malden as the villain. It’s all highly silly — the mechanism that controls the ape is a ringing bell on a bracelet…and the sound designer feels compelled to include that noise in every scene in which the bracelet is present, which is most of the scenes in the movie.

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2:45am (EST): Macabre (1958)

William Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.

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4:00am (EST): The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

In this Monogram cheapie, Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who sends poisoned orchids to brides on their wedding day so he can steal their mysterious virgin essence of youth and beauty, and transplant it to his wife!  I’d say that this one marks a new low for him, but then he’d already made The Devil Bat! On the other hand, at least The Devil Bat has a Devil Bat! And fortunately that one’s playing as well! (see below)

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5:15am (EST): The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Hilarious low budget film about a scientist who performs gruesome Frankensteinian experiments. One day he is riding with his girlfriend in the car and they get into an accident. She dies but he carries her head home in a bag and keeps it alive with tubes. Then he goes looking for a woman to kill so he can put his girlfriend’s head on it. Several great scenes with burlesque dancers, beauty pageants, and finally an art model makes the “cut”. Meanwhile his girlfriend is not at all grateful about having been kept alive. She sits there in a muffin pan and rolls her eyes and conspires with Whatever’s Behind That Locked Door (apparently an earlier failed experiment). I’ll tell ya what’s behind that locked door! It’s Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant! 

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6:45am (EST): The Killer Shrews (1959)

Surprisingly, this one is not an AIP/ Roger Corman production. It would make for a perfect double feature with Night of the Lepus, but for the fact that no one would sit still for two movies like this. The plot: a supply boat puts in on an island where a scientist has been experimenting with a serum that would shrink humans (in order to solve world hunger). Instead, he winds up growing shrews, and the shrews get out of hand. Played by puppets and dogs in costumes, the giant shrews look silly indeed.

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8:00am (EST): The Devil Bat (1940)

This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.

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9:15am (EST) The Seventh Victim (1943)

A teenager looks for her missing sister/ guardian and her detective work leads to a Satanic cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. Features Kim Hunter and  a pre-Beaver Hugh Beaumont. The film doesn’t go as far into superstition as it ought to to make it interesting and so does not scare us. Feels more like a noir, a melodrama or a spy thriller than horror. The Satanists seem more like Nazis, just some kind of a secret group of callous, plotting people. At the climax they try to coerce the missing sister into committing suicide but she won’t. Later she does, but then only because she wants to — not because she is being forced to. On the other hand, check out the sister’s rad, Bohemian haircut, a sort of Betty Paige/ Morticia Addams mash-up.

 

Tonight on TCM: More Silent Slapstick Classics

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in September, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of the finest silent comedy and slapstick classics (and documentaries thereon). Here’s what’s on the menu tonight:

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8:00pm (EST): The Birth of the Tramp (2014)

A documentary on the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, released on the 100th anniversary of his debut.

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9:15pm (EST): A Dog’s Life (1918)

A Dog’s Life is a longer, more ambitious film than any he had made previously, in some ways a sort of dry run for his later The Kid. For my money, the six scenes of A Dog’s Life are as funny and clever as any of his earlier shorts stacked together, with the additional bump of an emotional journey.

Chaplin plays his Little Tramp in the film. His co-stars are a pooch named Scraps, and Edna Purviance as a forlorn dance hall girl. All three of them are living “a dog’s life” in that they each are getting the short end of the stick. They meet, pass through several trials together, and in the end find happiness by exchanging their solitude for cooperative domesticity.

But along the way, we get to experience several of Chaplin’s most hilarious routines ever. And they’re all physical bits. In the first, after stealing a hot dog the tramp evades a policeman, over, under and around the wooden fence where he was sleeping. In the second, he applies for a job, but each time he advances toward the clerk’s window, someone else steps up to it just a split second before. In a later scene, Charlie keeps stealing muffins from a food vendor played by his brother Sydney, each time snatching one just as Syd’s back is turned. Try as he may Syd can’t catch him at it. In the end, Charlie has swallowed the whole plate of treats. And then there’s a funny bit with Charlie walking across a dance floor with a dog’s tail sticking out of his pants, and the other one (much imitated) in which Charlie supplies the gesturing hands of the man he has just knocked out so it will seem to the guy’s partner that he is still awake. In the coda, one of Chaplin’s occasional happy endings, man, woman, dog (and puppies) all one one big, happy family.

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10:00pm (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.

So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.

And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”

Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!

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11:30pm (EST): One Week (1920)

This film (the first of Buster Keaton‘s solo shorts to get a public release) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

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12:00am (EST): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. was Buster Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain.  The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny.

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1:15am (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

Inspired by the success of Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), Harold Lloyd made this compilation film containing clips of his own “greatest hits”. For many of us born far too late to have experienced his films in their own day, this film was our first introduction to the work of silent comedy’s “Third Genius”.

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3:00am (EST) Number Please (1920)

While the climax to this short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….

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3:30am (EST) Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Harold Lloyd’s Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York.

Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

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5:05am (EST) Anna Case in La Fiesta (1926)

This couldn’t be farther from a silent slapstick comedy. I can only think they include this short and Roseland (below) as illustrations of what the late silents were up against. This is an early Vitaphone talkie starring opera singer Anna Case, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

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5:15am (EST): Charley My Boy (1926)

An early Leo McCarey effort. The great Charley Chase gets mistaken for a suitor for the affections for heiress Kathryn Grant (he’s just there for a job). The last act has him roaming around the boss’s house, trying to hide booze from prohibition cops.

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4:57am (EST) Roseland (1930)

Ruth Etting et al in a Vitaphone short set in the famed Jazz Age nightclub.

And stay tuned — they’ll be showing more classic comedies later in the day — more on that to come!

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

Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #5

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that in full movie descriptions I always include spoilers.

Tomorrow’s line-up is focused on spaghetti westerns. While I have seen scores of Italian westerns, most of the classics of the genre, I am astonished to observe that I’ve only seen one  of the films they are showing in the daytime (the soporific Guns for San Sebastian. You’ll quickly find I am not a huge fan of most Italian westerns). Several of the daytime films seem to be TCM premieres. As we go into prime time though, we get into Leone, etc and we’ll have a few squibs about those.

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6:15am: Hate for Hate (1967)

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8:00am: Guns for San Sebastian (1968)

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10:00am: The Stranger Returns (1968)

 

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12:00pm: The Silent Stranger (1968)

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2:00pm: The Five Man Army (1970)

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4:00pm: A Bullet for Sandoval (1970)

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6:00pm: Red Sun (1971)

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8:00: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Italian director Sergio Leone based this founding spaghetti western on Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood, as The Man with No Name, wearing a poncho and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, wanders into a desolate town where he somehow decides there’s money to be made. There are two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojas. Clint, a supernaturally good shot (he kills everyone he shoots at in one shot and no even gets a chance to shoot back) goes to work for both gangs. In the end he kills everyone from both gangs (which amounts to the entire town) and takes home twice the money. But he’s a little better morally than the gang — at a certain point, he helps a young couple and their child escape. The film is less a story that one follows and more like a collection of memorable scenes and images. Such as Clint making a bunch of guys apologize for insulting his mule, then killing all four of them in about a second. “Make that four coffins,” he says to the coffin maker. Clint accidentally punching a woman in the face. Clint propping up two dead bodies in the graveyard to stand in for a couple of soldiers. A bunch of U.S. soldiers stopping Mexican cavalry that is transporting a coach full of gold; they turn out to be Rojas’ gang. Rojas’ gang setting a house on fire and then shooting everyone who runs out, including the matriarch, laughing all the while. Clint, all of his bones broken, killing two pursuers by crushing them with a wine barrel, and then crawling across town on his belly to safety. Appearing like a magician in the end through a haze of dynamite smoke and then spooking his enemies by seeming impervious to bullets (he has sheet metal under his poncho). And it’s all for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

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9:45pm: For a Few Dollars More (1965)

This sequel to A Fistful of Dollars has Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters, after a crook named Indio, a guy so evil his wanted poster depicts him laughing. Van Cleef, known as The Colonel, smokes a pipe, and uses a strange gun, a pistol that is adaptable into a rifle. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls the emergency brake to make an unscheduled stop on the train and then terrorizes the conductor when he dares to complain. The bounty hunters decide to team up  after a contest in which they shoot each others’ hats.  One of them must go undercover with the gang as they prepare to rob the bank in El Paso. Indio once killed his friend then raped his friend’s girlfriend (who shot herself while he was doing it). Maybe that’s why he keeps smoking grass to calm down but it only makes him more insane. He plays music in a little watch whenever he fights a duel. The film climaxes with a three-way duel. Of course Indio loses. It turns out the girl he had raped was The Colonel’s sister. This explains why the Colonel turns down the bounty in the end. The Colonel only wanted revenge. Whereas Clint wanted A FEW DOLLARS MORE.

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12:00am: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1968)

Leone’s third and last film in the Eastwood trilogy. When I first saw it I was alternately bored and scornfully amused by it. Now I think it’s amazing, though merely stylistically. Its cleverness is all directed at aesthetic elements. It doesn’t analyze or critique the human condition or America’s role in history or anything like that. I think the influence of many Italian film-makers on westerns has been in the main deleterious in this respect. Their storytelling makes no judgment between good or bad behavior. Revenge and vendetta are represented as legitimate human pursuits. We are occasionally invited to laugh at the pain and distress of others. It is a cruel universe. Yet many of the details and plot twists remind me of fairy tales: extremely fanciful, almost magical. At any rate, to the film at hand:

The film’s most indelible element is its justly celebrated soundtrack (Ennio Morricone), and the stylish way we are introduced to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the titular characters. Essentially it’s the same story as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! The title characters are in mad pursuit of a cache of gold they didn’t even steal themselves (although these guys are plenty crooked already). Their paths keep crossing, the alliances keep shifting. Starts in New Mexico during the Civil War.  “Angel Eyes” (Van Cleef) learns about the gold when hired by one of the robbers to track down one of the others. He kills a guy who knows the name his quarry is traveling under (and his son) and the man who hired him. “When I have a job, I always follow through”.  Meanwhile, enter “Blondie” (Eastwood) and “Tuco” i.e., The Rat” (Wallach in Mexican mode). Tuco is a shifty eyed weasel, the cousin of Wallach’s character in The Magnificent Seven. These  two are partners. Blondie brings Tuco into the authorities for the price on his head, and then shoots the rope when they are about to hang him (shooting everybody’s hats off in the bargain). When Wallach annoys him one too many times, Eastwood takes all the money and leaves him in the desert.

Wallach makes it back to town, washes his face, and goes directly to the gun store, where he gets a gun, whiskey, and a sombrero — and robs the til. Wallach catches up to Eastwood while he is “rescuing” his next partner.  Wallach walks Eastwood through the desert now with no water and no hat, until he is seriously injured by the sun. He is about to put a bullet in his head when a wagon rides up. Everyone inside (they’re all wearing Confederate uniforms) seems to be dead. However, one is alive. He turns out to be the missing robber from the gold heist. He manages to give part of the location to Wallach, who then goes to get him some water and meanwhile he gives the rest of the clue to Eastwood. Then he expires. The two men are now bound together whether they want to be or not. Wallach brings Eastwood to recuperate at a hospital run by his brother, a priest. (They’re wearing confederate uniforms; they’ve disguised themselves as the dead soldiers, since they are actually wanted criminals). They’re then caught by Union soldiers, whom they mistook for Confederates, since they’re covered head to toe in grey dust. That’s one fairy tale twist. Another is that a major figure at the prison camp is Angel Eyes, who tortures Wallach for information, while Confederate prisoners play sweet music to cover the sound. Angel Eyes brings Blondie with him to get the gold. Meanwhile Wallach leaps off a prison train, handcuffed to a guard, knifing him on the way. Unable to get out of the handcuffs, he lays the chain across the railroad track, and waits for next train, which frees him. He catches up with the other two in a fantastic, dreamlike village that has been destroyed by cannon. Someone tries to kill Wallach while he takes a bath. He shoots from under the suds, saying one of my favorite lines: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Wallach and Blondie team up, shoot several of Angel Eyes’ men, but Angel Eyes escapes.

Their next episode is a digression, perhaps it is only there to bring the characters’ redemption. They encounter a Union battalion that is at a stalemate with their Confederate counterparts. They fight and lose men every day over a bridge they are not allowed to destroy. The two men blow up the bridge. Finally they make it to the graveyard. Wallach, through trickery, gets there first. The other two show up. there is a three way shootout. Angel Eyes dies of course. Eastwood shoots him, having emptied Wallach’s gun earlier. Wallach digs uo the gold. Eastwood makes him put his head in a noose, standing on a very shaky headstone. He then rides away, waiting until the last possible second to shoot the rope.

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3:00am: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

A kind of American tribute to the spaghetti western, also starring Clint Eastwood. I think of this movie as The Ox-Bow Incident squared. It’s supposed to be Oklahoma, 1889, but it really takes place in some weird parallel universe that might be called “Hanging Land”. All anyone has anything to do with in this world involves stringin’ ‘em up. An unjust and botched hanging of Eastwood (definitely based on the one in The Oxbow Incident) launches the story. Then Eastwood goes to work for a hangin’ judge (Pat Hingle), to bring back all them guys who almost hung Eastwood so they can hang ‘em! Meanwhile, the judge does a whole bunch of other hangings, and the whole town gathers in the town square to watch this enormous gallows that dominates the entire town in a manner that seems to echo the guillotine in Paris. (The prisoners are also kept in a huge dungeon that evokes the Bastille). Though American, the film has a strong flavor of spaghetti westerns, including the stylized hyper violence; lengthy shots where nothing in particular is happening, and a cool soundtrack. Other side benefits: Alan Hale Jr is one of the bad guys (exceedingly surreal and weird to see Skipper in this context) as are Bruce Dern and Ed Begley, Sr. who are right in their element.

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5:00am: The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

I’m very much looking forward to seeing this light western comedy starring Ginger Rogers for the first time!

 

Tomorrow on TCM: 3 Chaplin Classics

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2016 by travsd

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Tomorrow afternoon (Eastern times) Turner Movie Classics will be presenting three classic Charlie Chaplin movies. As a lead-in, almost to whet your appetite before the big feast, they’ll have two Preston Sturgis movies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. I like it, because it fits as an equation: Sturgis + Griffith = Chaplin. Works for me!

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12pm: Modern Times (1936) 

Modern Times is widely regarded as the last of the silent films, made nearly a decade since The Jazz Singer had made talkies popular with audiences, and five years since the release of the previous “last silent film,” Chaplin’s own City Lights. 

In fact, Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times is largely about that conflict, about a man who is striving to maintain natural human rhythms and proportions in a world that has become regimented and automated. How is his old-fashioned character going to fit into this modern world? How does the anachronistic silent man fit in a sound universe? The film seems like a statement about the question whether Chaplin himself is relevant any more.

Modern Times reflects Chaplin’s two decades-long flirtation with leftist politics in its criticism of a society that values profits before people. Set in an Orwellian near-future dystopia, the film introduces him as an assembly line worker in a factory full of Keatonesque gadgets. Constantly exhorted to speed up, he has a nervous breakdown, a sort of repetitive motion psychosis. He spends the bulk of the rest of the film unemployed, in jail, or struggling to keep up in dehumanizing jobs. To keep it balanced, there are a couple of episodes in which he suffers on account of labor unrest and strikes as well, implying that his real target is any larger system that diminishes the individual. There really is no more plot to it than that.

His co-star in the film was his then-girlfriend, the lovely Paulette Goddard, as the “Gamine,” a sort of cross between The Kid and Chaplin’s heroines of the Purviance era. Feisty and full of the grit of self-preservation, the role might well have been perfect for Mabel Normand during her Mickey period. Goddard is terrific as the resourceful urchin; one of the very few times Chaplin allows himself a leading lady who can match his charisma on the screen.

As Chaplin had said many times and in many ways “we think too much and feel too little.” To the extent that he is an artist who proceeds by instinct and feeling, his satires are thankfully prevented from being straight-up agit-prop for this cause or that. There appears to be much confusion in his head but his work is better because of it. For example, throughout most of the film we are presented with a Dickensian vision of industrialization’s victims, with our heroes suffering from hunger and privation due to their constant unemployment, a problem associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Yet the factory scenes he presents give us a vision much more like the Soviet Union, the visual fetishization of sprockets, gears, and assembly lines, and the constant supervision of Big Brother on a video screen (which was at the time pure science-fiction). In the end he seems to say, along with Emerson, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times.”

As Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s most popular films, I feel I scarcely need to recount the humor he mines from the film’s bleak setup: The image of the Little Fellow trapped within the machinery gears ranks with Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock as one of the most widely known images from silent comedy. The nervous breakdown, which starts as a twitchy inability to stop tightening bolts (or things that look like bolts), and culminates in the last of his great Pan dances. The scene where he becomes the test subject for a malfunctioning self-feeding machine (which will allow people to work without stopping for lunch). And the scene where he pays the system back by trapping Chester Conklin in the middle of a large manufacturing device and has to feed his defenseless face during their five-minute break. The repeated comic premise of the Little Fellow trying to get INTO jail strictly for the food and shelter. His arrest for accidentally seeming to lead a communist demonstration (the red traffic flag he is holding doesn’t help). And his single-handed quelling of a prison riot, enabled solely by the Little Fellow’s inadvertent ingestion of a large amount of contraband cocaine (yes, that’s in there!).

To sweeten the pot, he composed one of his most memorable scores for the film, including the hit song “Smile,” and introduced his first scraps of spoken dialogue. Cleverly, he has most of the talk come out of devices. The stern admonitions of the omnipresent boss-head on video screens. A radio in the prison. And then his very own, much-anticipated first words, which he coyly gives to us as gibberish in the form of a song to which he has forgotten the lyrics.

Modern Times was and remains one of Chaplin’s great blockbusters.  Chaplin’s Tramp had suddenly gained new symbolic relevance during the Depression. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate had been 3.3%. At that time, the Tramp had been merely an amusing “other.” By 1933, unemployment had hit 23.2%. A quarter of the audience (if they could afford a dime for the movies) was out of work and suddenly—terrifyingly—the Tramp was someone they could relate to.

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1:30pm: City Lights (1931) 

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.

The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.

The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.

But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.

Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.

Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.

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3:00 Limelight (1952)

Limelight was a victim of history twice over; if not for two accidents of history one imagines it would have been hailed by press and public upon its release. But that’s not what happened. Chaplin’s last huge success had been The Great Dictator, over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, he had followed it up with Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie so deeply unpopular with the American public it single-handedly tanked what had theretofore been a spotless, almost infallible career. Chaplin was all but pilloried in the wake of this film’s release, which is particularly a shame since the public was likely to have embraced his next film as Chaplin’s Triumphant Return if circumstances hadn’t prejudiced them against even checking it out.

Limelight (1952) is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian – a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from the Tramp) takes the stage. We finally get to see Chaplin’s flea circus routine (previously filmed in fragments in By the Sea and The Professor) in its entirety. And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film.

By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which his character dies. Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland. (This is the second accident of history I mentioned. This mishigas meant Limelight was never properly promoted or distributed in the U.S. after its initial release, leaving critics and audiences to discover it gradually over the ensuing decades).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Tomorrow on TCM: A Harold Lloyd Orgy

Posted in Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow is the great silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd’s birthday and Turner Classic Movies will be observing it in fine form with this excellent cross section of his career, including two shorts, several silent features, some of his best talkies, and a late compendium that helped launch the silent comedy revival.

If my blog numbers are any measure, Lloyd is not nearly as well known today as his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I hope this well be rectified in years to come. The truth is that in many ways Lloyd’s movies are more accessible and “contemporary” than those of his peers, and frequently more laugh-out-loud funny. He’s not as “intellectual”or “artistic” as the other two, but he is a first rate movie star in every sense of the word, and essentially ruled silent comedy throughout the 1920s, a decade when Chaplin’s films, though they were among the greatest hits of all time, where few in number; and Keaton, though he released the greatest work of his career, lagged quite far behind the other two at the box office, The films are being screen during the day tomorrow. Trust me: set your DVR and check them out. Here’s the line-up:

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6:15 am (EST): From Hand to Mouth (1919)

This is an interesting one to begin with, for it is less characteristic of classic Lloyd. Much as Chaplin is sort of “doing Lloyd” in A Day’s Pleasure , released a few days before, in From Hand to Mouth seems to be “doing Chaplin”. Of course with his earlier characters Willie Work and Lonesome Luke, Lloyd had literally been imitating Chaplin. Here, he experiments with a different sort of situation for his more famous character. Rather than the “go-getter” scenarios we associate with the character, he presents us with a situation more Chaplinesque. The young man is down and out, running from the cops, stealing food, etc. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous lawyer (Snub Pollard) tries to swindle a young heriess (Bebe Daniels) out of her inheritance, then gets a gang to kidnap her. Earlier, she had helped Harold out of a jam by paying for some food he stole. Now he has the chance to repay her by summoning the police to rescue her, which he does by provoking large numbers of them to chase him, a gag he would use many times again.

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6:45 am (EST): Never Weaken (1921)

One of the best of Lloyd’s so-called “thrill comedies”, paving the way for his most famous in that line Safety Last. Like many of the best short comedies, this one is in three sections. In the first part, the plucky Harold devises ingenious ways to drum up business for his sweetie’s (Mildred Davis) boss, an osteopath. In the second he thinks his girlfriend is going to marry some other guy and he unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. In the last part, poor unsuspecting Harold is in his office minding his own business when a crane at the construction site across the street swings a girder in the window and picks up the chair in which he’s sitting. There follows an odyssey of nightmare proportions as Harold tries to make his way to earth from the upper levels of an unfinished building with no floors, stairs or elevator.

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7:15 am (EST): Safety Last(1923)

Safety Last is the best known of Lloyd’s features, by virtue of it containing the iconic image of him hanging from the clock at the top of an office building. It is the best known of Lloyd’s “thrill pictures” — comedies in which, by virtue of a crazy set of circumstances, Lloyd finds himself on the outside of the upper floors of a skyscraper, unable to get down.Safety Last casts Lloyd as a department store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a Human Fly (professional stunt climber) to climb all the way to the top of their seventeen story building from the outside. Unfortunately, the guy he hired runs into some trouble with the police, and Harold, who’s never done this before, and certainly isn’t properly dressed or equipped, has to do the climbing himself. The hair-raising climax comprises at least a third of the picture. Indeed it is its whole point. That image of Lloyd hanging from the clock ranks with Chaplin getting caught in the gears and cogs of Modern Times as an eloquent symbol of the modern predicament. A man hanging by his maimed hand from a business tower, at the mercy of a contraption that regulates time. Unlike Chaplin, however, Lloyd doesn’t intend it that way. If a man must enslave himself to win the things society tells him he ought to have, Lloyd tells us, so be it! “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Nevertheless, you can’t help but cheer for him on that building. If most of Lloyd’s goals are illusions, the objective of escaping a horrible death seems very reasonable.

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8:30 am (EST): Girl Shy (1924)

In my opinion, Girl Shy has one of the best climaxes of any Hollywood movie. In the film, Harold plays the most bashful young man ever, who writes a how-to manual for prospective Casanovas using his own nonexistent “experience” as a guideline. It gets published –as humor – and Harold is humiliated. Meanwhile, he really loves a girl he has met, but they are divided by class. He is poor and she is rich. Thinking it is hopeless, he pretends to be the jerk he seems in his book, and dumps her. She is heartbroken and about to marry some other stuffed shirt. Then: the big scene. It seems to be adapted from Fairbanks’ 1916 The Matrimaniac, the entire plot of which is the hero’s Odyssey to stop his girl’s marriage to the wrong man. Lloyd’s version though is faster, more compressed, and contains funnier gags. Everything goes wrong for Harold as he speeds to the church to stop the wedding. He ends up taking every known form of transportation and something goes wrong with all of them. He steals about a dozen conveyances. Then he makes it to the altar in the nick of time and –as he always does—seizes the girl of his dreams as though he were a caveman. I would be beyond shocked to learn that Mike Nichols hadn’t studied the last act of Girl Shy in preparation for The Graduate.

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10:00 am (EST): The Freshman (1925)

The Freshman is up there with Safety Last as being one of Lloyd’s most lasting, definitive statements. The plot concerns Harold’s first year at college and his attempts to make good on the football team. Personally, it’s hard for me not to find his primary goal—belonging, conformity—somewhat unworthy. But it matters so much to Harold, and he is such a schlub, that you can’t help having sympathy. Lloyd even attempts (for the one and only time) moments of Chaplinesque pathos in this movie. Harold’s girl learns the students have been making fun of him and she tells him so. Harold puts on a brave face at first and then cries, and we can’t help feeling for him.  “Make them like you for what you really are,” she tells him. This message would have redeemed the film morally in my eyes if it had been carried through the picture, but then it gets abandoned. Because what ends up happening is Harold redeems himself by winning the big football game. Tenaciousness wins the day. But the message remains one of social conformity. But yet again — that may be why, it was and is one of Lloyd’s most successful pictures with the public. It’s also, not incidentally, a really good movie.

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11:30 am (EST): Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York. Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

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1:00pm (EST) : Welcome Danger (1929)

Co-directed by Clyde Bruckman and Mal St. Clair. Welcome Danger was originally made as a silent, then reshot to serve a market that had switched almost entirely over to talkies in just a few short months. The plot concerns Harold moving to San Francisco to step into the shoes of his late father, a legendary detective.  After the usual ups and downs, he defeats a Chinatown gang led by the great Hollywood character actor Charles Middleton (best known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials). Of the two versions, the silent one comes off better. The talkie is an interesting specimen, but you can’t just add speech to a silent movie and expect it to work. Since a chain of gags already moves the plot, the talking is unnecessary, even annoying. As in many talkies of this era, there are passages with no scripted dialogue but very repetitious yelling of a character’s name or a phrase. That must be a holdover from silents, when we wouldn’t have noticed what anyone was saying. It gets really annoying really fast. This amount of ad libbing turned into a sort of blind alley in the development of sound. In the early talkies, when the actors hold to the script, it’s better. Still, Welcome Danger did well at the box office because of the curiosity of audiences to hear Lloyd speak.

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3:00 pm (EST): The Milky Way (1936)

The Milky Way was Lloyd’s last independent feature, and a very respectable one (i.e., funny!) at that. He plays a bungling milk man who is misunderstood by the press to have KO’d the world champion middleweight. What he is good at, however, is ducking, and that’s enough to secure him victories, and get the girl. Interestingly, this comedy finally allows Lloyd his take on that old slapstick staple, the comedy boxing match, which had already been nailed by Arbuckle (The Knockout, 1914), Chaplin (The Champion1915, and City Lights 1931), and Keaton (Battling Butler1926). Directed by the great Leo McCarey, this underrated classic features Adolph Menjou, Lionel Stander, Charles Lane et al, and featuring the first onscreen appearance of Anthony Quinn. It was later remade starring Danny Kaye as The Kid from Brooklyn (1946).

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4:30 pm (EST): The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

This is Lloyd’s last feature, made in 1947 and later retitled Mad Wednesday and re-released in 1950.

For this film producer-director-screenwriter Preston Sturges persuaded Lloyd to come out of retirement nine years after completing his last film, to recreate his role from his 1925 hit comedy The Freshman. The Freshman had ended with Harold’s character winning the big college football game, plus the girl. Presumably he has a bright future ahead of him. Sturges’s surprising conceit is that, twenty years later, Harold is not the go-getter we all projected he’d be, but an obscure clerk in a go-nowhere career. As the film opens, he is fired from even that dead-end job for his lack of drive and ambition. Despondent, he steps into a dive, where bartender Edgar Kennedy gives him his first drink. The resulting drunk sends Harold out on a spree the likes of which will be the making of him. While drunk, he uses his life savings to buy a circus. When he learns that the big top is struggling he causes citywide commotion by bringing a lion with to meet with bankers. The climax on the upper story ledge of a skyscraper is a tribute to Lloyd’s many “thrill comedies” featuring similar scenes, notably Safety Last. 

Lloyd is surprisingly terrific in the film for someone who hadn’t been before the cameras in almost a decade. In some early flashback scenes he convincingly plays himself at age 20, though he himself is 50 years old.  The film is also a Who’s Who of great character comedians of the era including Rudy ValleeFrankling Pangborn, Lionel Stander, Margaret Hamilton, Jack NortonJulius Tannen, Jimmy Conlin, etc.

Unfortunately, producer Howard Hughes pulled it from circulation shortly after its release, shot new scenes and re-cut it, re-releasing it in 1950 under the title Mad Wednesday. It didn’t do well in either released version. The version I watched surely must have been after Hughes’s tampering, for it seemed somewhat choppy, lacking the perfect shape of Sturges’s earlier comedies from the 40, more resembling the odd assembly Hughes’s had given his own movies like The Outlaw. Even with this mutilation and its checkered history, I think the movie deserves enhanced status as a classic, and is an extremely fitting final film statement for Lloyd, so everyone should see it.

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6:15 pm (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

This compendium of old Harold Lloyd clips is vastly more important than you might think it is. For those of us over a certain age (say, 40), it was almost invariably our initial introduction to the classic work of Harold Lloyd. In the ’60s and 70s, when home video had not come out yet, and through ensuing years, when most of Lloyd’s work was not yet available on video, the most likely way to discover Lloyd was this grab bag retrospective Lloyd assembled of his own work, which was periodically screened on television. With a couple of exceptions among his early Keystones, I did not see Lloyd’s films themselves until the 1990s, when I moved to New York and caught festivals of them at the Film Forum. Nowadays, the volume of them that are available for home viewing is nothing less than staggering. Quite a reversal of affairs. At any rate, if you are still a Harold Lloyd virgin, as many people still are apparently, I would STILL recommend Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy as an excellent introduction to his films. Watch this one first, then go back and watch the others.

 

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