Saturday, November 18, 2017

Unfortunate Print Ads: Comedians, Penguins & Cigarettes

Celebrity endorsements can be a tad tricky now, begging the questions of just what Bill Cosby was specifically using that Jell-o Pudding for and whether hot dog producers will have the temerity to approach Louis C K, Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner about reviving the "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener" campaign.

That said, movie stars plugging smoooooooooooooth satisfying tobacco products goes back to the silent era. None other than swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was immortalized on Players cigarette cards.

Yes, even during the worst days of the Great Depression, there was serious dough-re-me in endorsing smokes. The health-conscious Mae West very likely never touched tobacco offscreen, but here she is, plugging Old Golds along with her latest flick, Belle Of The Nineties (1934).

Cigarette ads prove much less of a surprise with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

This is for two reasons. One. . . ever seen Dino without a cigarette?

Two, the very Chesterfields Dean & Jerry are sounding off for were among the sponsors of The Colgate Comedy Hour, as well as their radio program. Smoke a pack of Chesterfields, then brush your teeth with Colgate Dental Creme!

This writer thinks the Kool Penguins are funny, if not necessarily in the Joe E. Lewis sense of the word. Fortunately, as far as we knew, the Kool Penguins did not perform in nightclubs, and did not - as far as we know - have run-ins with The Mob.

The little guys were big hits in print advertising.

The Kool Penguins even had their own theatrical animated commercials, contemporaneous with the terpsichorean tobacco ads that Oskar Fischinger was creating for Muratti Cigarettes. In this one, the penguins run and staff the Kool cigarettes plant in Kentucky and even the Statue Of Liberty smokes Kools.

One would think Bob Hope would not be caught dead endorsing anything as gnarly and unfashionable as cigars, but, like Martin & Lewis, he was prominent among the many comics to enthusiastically promote Chesterfield Cigarettes.

Lucille Ball endorsed Chesterfields, then switched to Phillip Morris when it joined the sponsors of I Love Lucy. That meant that Lucy would NOT "rather fight than switch."

The chain-smoking wheeling-dealing Sgt. Ernie Bilko was a natural for a show with a cigarette company as its chief sponsor.

So Phil Silvers, never to be outdone by Lucy & Desi or anyone, starred in a series of print ads for Camels. Both Phil and Ernie needed the cash for the next wager!

We thank the Phil Silvers Appreciation Society for posting a bunch of these ads.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

This Weekend: Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Pays Tribute To Mabel Normand

"Scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone." The Women Film Pioneers Project

Tomorrow is the 125th natal anniversary of one of the greatest comediennes in the history of motion pictures, the winsome and very funny Mabel Normand (1892-1930). Fittingly, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum shall present a tribute to Mabel this Saturday and Sunday, November 11-12, 2017.

Recent books about the silent movie great include Timothy Dean Lefler's biography and Steve Massa's comprehensive and superb book on the numerous women of silent film comedy, Slapstick Divas, which devotes an entire chapter to her.

Recognition for Mabel Normand - an actress, comedienne, writer, director and an aviator who did her own stunts - is long overdue. Timothy Lefler will be on hand to sign copies of his book, Mabel Normand, The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap, as part of the weekend tribute at Niles.

Mabel preceded Charlie Chaplin as a movie star and appeared in 220 films. She started working in movies for Vitagraph, where she began headlining the studio's "Betty" comedies in 1910. Her recurring character even supported top comedian and king of the lot John Bunny.

This would be followed by her starring roles in a slew of short subjects produced by Mack Sennett at Biograph in 1912. She demonstrated exceptional talent and versatility - acting, writing, directing and performing death-defying stunts - including, in the preparation for her action-adventure-comedy A Dash Through the Clouds, flying an airplane.

When Sennett left Biograph to form his own studio, Keystone, later that year, Mabel would be key among the stock company, (along with Sennett, Ford Sterling and Fred Mace), starring in one of the studio's first releases, The Water Nymph. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle, she would be among the breakout stars of Mack Sennett's Keystone in the World War I years.

Her style was often subtle, underplayed and naturalistic, looking forward to the likes of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert while simultaneously demonstrating a flair for 1916 style visual comedy. She could take pratfalls with the best of them but also shine in dramatic roles, such as the part in Roscoe Arbuckle's brilliant 1916 film He Did & He Didn't. In this respect, for the most part, Mabel's performances differed from such talented, funny and likable "baggy pants comediennes" as Louise Fazenda, Alice Howell and Gale Henry, her sisters in slapstick who were the silent era predecessors of Lucille Ball and Joan Davis.

One could argue that the greatest comedienne to ever appear in motion pictures was not Lucille Ball, Martha Raye, the larger-than-life Marie Dressler or even the amazing Carole Lombard, but that bright star of the teens and 1920's, Madcap Mabel. Dubbed "the female Chaplin," she was the top comedienne in silents.

Mabel co-stars with Charlie in some 1914 Keystones, and they work beautifully off each other.

The museum's Mabel Normand Birthday Weekend program begins on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with three films she starred in for Mack Sennett.

In the feature presentation, The Extra Girl (1923) Mabel plays a small town girl who comes to Hollywood with aspirations to be a movie star; let's just say things do not work out quite as planned. It will be preceded by two short subjects, the aforementioned A Dash Through the Clouds (1912), in which ever-intrepid Mabel takes a spin in a marginally more modern version of those contraptions flown by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and a 35mm print of the Keystone classic Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), a wild and melodramatic action comedy with sweet, romantic undertones; Mabel shares the spotlight with frequent co-star Roscoe Arbuckle and, portraying the crazed raving psycho villain (with about 8 pounds of relish), rubber-legged Al St. John.

At 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 12, there will be free screenings of two short films about Mabel Normand by Rudy Cecera, Madcap Mabel (2010) and Mabel’s Dressing Room (2013). As part of the Laurel & Hardy Talkie Matinee show at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, there shall be a screening of Mabel's 1926 Hal Roach Studio vehicle The Nickel-Hopper, which features Oliver Hardy and Boris Karloff in supporting roles.

This represents Miss Normand's last film series, some of which were written and directed by Stan Laurel. Also on the bill: Beau Hunks (1931), starring Laurel & Hardy, and the Our Gang short Shrimps for a Day (1935).

For more: there is a Mabel Normand YouTube channel

Also highly recommend the very good entry on Mabel posted as part of the Women Film Pioneers Project website.

As previously mentioned, read Timothy Dean Lefler's Mabel Normand, The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap and Steve Massa's Slapstick Divas. Here, Mabel and many more groundbreaking grand dames of motion pictures finally get their proper due.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

And This Blog Loves Winsor McCay

Binge-watching turn of the 20th century films by Émile Cohl, for this movie buff, leads inevitably to the films by another innovator in animation, Winsor McCay, the creator of amazing comics and editorial cartoons. We love the epic comic Little Nemo In Slumberland. When it comes to pure visual fantasy, Little Nemo can't be beat - more than a century later.

Count us among the frequently astonished and awed by the comics and films of this astoundingly talented artist-vaudevillian-animator-raconteur.

The prolific illustrator began creating comics for the New York Herald such as Little Sammy Sneeze and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend in 1903 and originated Little Nemo in Slumberland, comic and fantasy Technicolor dreamscape, in 1905. McCay started in movies by bringing Little Nemo to animated form. Note that in the opening, one of Winsor's pals is Vitagraph comedy star John Bunny.

At Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we love the wonderfully grotesque film Winsor McCay made starring a wiseguy mosquito. Its not just the film's obvious visceral impact - it's that the flying blood-sucker's just a bit of a mischievous bastard. Could be considered one of the first cases of characterization in animation.

And then there's Gertie. . .

McCay's vaudeville act, with him as ringmaster and Gertie the dinosaur as featured performer, must have been something to behold.

From Wikipedia: Gertie the Dinosaur debuted in February 1914 as part of McCay's vaudeville act. McCay introduced Gertie as "the only dinosaur in captivity",[66] and commanded the animated beast with a whip.[66] Gertie seemed to obey McCay, bowing to the audience, and eating a tree and a boulder, though she had a will of her own and sometimes rebelled. When McCay admonished her, she cried. McCay consoled her by throwing her an apple—in reality pocketing the cardboard prop apple as a cartoon one simultaneously appeared on screen.[67] In the finale, McCay walked offstage, reappeared in animated form in the film, and had Gertie carry him away.[68]

Our favorites: the way-out Dreams Of A Rarebit Fiend cartoons.

One of the most astonishing McCay films is the surviving fragment from The Centaurs (1921), featuring advanced sophistication of animated movement and line.

For more info, check out John Canemaker's comprehensive book Winsor McCay, His Life And Art.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Latest Silent Movie Rarities on Blu-ray & DVD

The aficionados of classic movies at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are thrilled to hear that numerous formerly lost feature films and animation gems from the halycon days of silent movies can, a century later in 2017, hold an esteemed place on the film buff's shelf.

Author Leonard Maltin has beat Your Blogmeister to the punch with his October 22 post From Lon Chaney To Louise Brooks: Silent Films That Speak, which covers the slew of cool silents becoming available on Blu-ray and DVD. These include the William A. "Wild Bill" Wellmann feature Beggars Of Life (starring Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen and, in a good part not in a despair-ridden G.W. Pabst opus, Louise Brooks), two Marion Davies comedies and Chaney: Before The 1000 Faces, featuring three 1915-1916 Universal films which precede the gifted actor's mega-stardom as Hollywood's ever-menacing monster du jour.

On this blog, we have extolled the good work of Ben Model and Undercrank Productions. We were happy to support the Kickstarter fundraiser that led to the release of When Knighthood Was In Flower, just one of several fun and entertaining Marion Davies vehicles produced in 1922.

An original 35mm nitrate print of When Knighthood Was In Flower, preserved by the Library of Congress. was scanned for this Blu-ray/DVD release. The original color tints have been reinstated and the hand-colored sequence digitally replicated.

Added to this: two more Marion Davies comedies produced in 1922, Beauty's Worth and The Bride’s Play. There is a certain long overdue justice to these films finally becoming available for viewing, as Ms. Davies, whose skills as a comedienne, actress and mimic enliven such classic late silents as The Patsy and Show People, received an enduring bad rap as vapid and untalented via (Citizen Kane) screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz

These vehicles for Davies, charming and funny in both light comedy features and elaborate costume dramas, have essentially been unseen since those halcyon days entertaining audiences on the big screen in 1922. In all cases, her playfulness, likability and good humor shines through.

Considerably less lovely and charming but an even bigger star in the early days was Vitagraph Pictures comedian John Bunny (1863-1915).

Bunny, the corpulent, irascible, craggy and most Dickensian character actor, was the first comedy star of American movies.

There's a new DVD on the prolific silent movie star which features several of his farcical starring short subjects, as well as Tony Susnick's superb film, John Bunny - Film's 1st King of Comedy Documentary, which can be ordered here.

Bunny's stardom, beginning in 1910, preceded Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. He appeared in 172 films and was frequently teamed with character actress Flora Finch in a series termed Bunnyfinches. There was palpable tension between the two of them - think William Frawley & Vivian Vance on I Love Lucy or John Belushi & Jane Curtin in Saturday Night Live - and this added to the comedy.

To answer those who find the John Bunny films most entertaining and what to know where the heck can one more of them, will note that in addition to the John Bunny DVD, several John Bunny Vitagraph short subjects in excellent pictorial quality have been uploaded to YouTube by the marvelous archivists of Eye Film Institute.

As far as early cartoons are concerned, we champion those who have been presenting animation rarities on the big screen. The usual suspects would include Jerry Beck, author, teacher and curator of numerous programs at The Steve Allen Theatre, this blogger/showman's frequent collaborators Bob Ekman and Scott Moon of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival and Rheem Theatre screenings, as well as Tommy Jose Stathes of Cartoons On Film, who has been bringing early 20th century animation to 21st century Blu-ray and DVD in his Cartoon Roots series.

Halloween Haunts, featuring new HD transfers & restorations of animation from the Stathes Collection, is the latest in the Cartoon Roots series. The eye candy for toonheads comes with informative liner notes and extras galleries.

The lineup of Halloween Haunts, including both silents and goodies from the sound era, is as follows:

The Haunted Hotel (J. Stuart Blackton, 1907)
The Pumpkin Race (Roméo Bosetti, 1907)
Out of the Inkwell: The Ouija Board (Max Fleischer, 1920)
Dinky Doodle in Just Spooks (Walter Lantz, 1925)
Out of the Inkwell: Koko Sees Spooks (Max Fleischer, 1925)
Alice’s Mysterious Mystery (Walt Disney, 1926)
Mutt & Jeff: Slick Sleuths (Associated Animators, 1926)
Hot Dog Cartoons: Pete's Haunted House (Walter Lantz, 1926)
Felix the Cat in Sure-Locked Homes (Otto Messmer, 1928)
The Fresh Lobster (circa 1920s) with Billy Bletcher
Snap the Gingerbread Man: The Witch’s Cat (Kinex Studios, 1929)
Waffles & Don in The Haunted Ship (Van Beuren Productions, 1930)
Felix the Cat in Skulls & Sculls (Otto Messmer, 1930)
Tom & Jerry: Wot A Night (Van Beuren Productions, 1931)
Felix the Cat: Bold King Cole (Van Beuren Productions, 1936)

We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog support these endeavors and encourage readers to do so as well!

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Fabulous Émile Cohl

While writing earlier this month about "pixillated" animation involving found objects, cut-outs, etc. from such imaginative indie filmmakers as Frank & Caroline Mouris (both separately and together), Mike "The Wizard Of Speed And Time" Jittlov and especially the National Film Board of Canada's intrepid Norman McLaren, made passing mention of the innovator who developed this technique in the first place: Émile Cohl (1857-1938).

Much as Alice Guy Blache did, Émile Cohl, an illustrator-caricaturist-animator-filmmaker-special effects designer, got there first with all kinds of cinematic innovations.

Fittingly in the freewheeling spirit of early cinema, Émile appeared to be making these innovations up as we went along, as entomologist-turned-filmmaker Ladislaw Starewicz did in the field of stop-motion animation and Max Linder did in his many comedy short subjects.

It's a darn shame Émile Cohl didn't live long enough to be lionized, lauded and interviewed by film historians around the world. Cohl's still stunning film Fantasmagorie blazes cinematic trails with flair, panache and creative invention to spare. No doubt Winsor McCay saw Fantasmagorie and perceived that Émile threw down the artistic gauntlet!

Émile Cohl appears to have responded to the films of Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca as if they had thrown down the gauntlet. Cohl's Magic Hoop, produced in 1908, adds a cartoony component to the illusionist "trickfilm" universe of Georges Méliès.

In such films as Clair De Lune, the cartoon figures interact with the live-action characters in a Méliès style presentation. Ladislaw Starewicz must have seen these films and taken notes!

The numerous short films - over 250 produced between 1908 and 1923 - by Émile Cohl for Pathé Freres and Gaumont demonstrate a seemingly inexhaustible imagination.

Rather amazingly, fragments of the long-lost American films Cohl created for the Éclair Company in New Jersey are starting to turn up, over 100 years after their theatrical release. Here is a clip from He Poses For His Portrait, one of the Newlyweds series in which Cohl collaborated with comic strip artist George "Bringing Up Father" McManus.

For more info, check out the excellent overview of Émile Cohl's career posted on The Bioscope, as well as the superlative biography and portrait of life in late 19th century/early 20th century Paris, Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film, penned by silent film and animation historian Donald Crafton in 1990.

The hardcover edition of Prof. Crafton's book is out of print and, thus, not cheap, but one can order the paperback edition via Amazon. University libraries, especially for colleges that offer film and animation study curriculums, may have copies of Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film for checkout as well.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

100th Birthday Fedora Tip To Thelonious Monk

"Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way--through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things that I didn't know about at all." - John Coltrane (1960, in Downbeat Magazine)

With the understanding that whenever Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog posts about music, all readers BUT musicians appear to go away, we salute the one, the only Thelonious Sphere Monk, born on October 10, 1917. 100th birthday tributes are pouring in for the genius of modern music from NPR, the Mercury News and the Monk Institute, just three among many kudos from around the world. Jazz At Lincoln Center has been presenting the Thelonious Monk Festival, a series of concerts in tribute.

The prolific and original pianist-composer-bandleader - as well as a mathematician, ping-pong champ and chess master - is much celebrated 100 years after his birth. This was not so much the case during his heydey, which extended from the latter 1940's through the mid-1960's.

Fortunately for present-day music lovers, a good many complete concerts and television shows featuring Thelonious Monk and his Quartet are on YouTube. Monk's last concerts were in 1975.

The 1940's pop culture and music writers who covered jazz in the post-WW2 era were definitely interested in the trendiness of it all and being in on the shiniest, hippest new thing, but seemed to entirely miss out on who Monk was. Monk was dubbed "The High Priest Of Bebop" and, while this made great copy, it was also a big fat swing and a miss as far as comprehending what his music was about and why he was important.

For this music aficionado, Thelonious Monk's importance was not just his ability to create an original, very specific compositional style and musical universe, much as Duke Ellington had, but his knack for synthesizing ideas from highly varied sources (Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines) and keeping the tradition alive while creating something entirely original, new and different in the process. This is also true of Monk's renditions of standards by other composers.

The following page, Monk bandmate Steve Lacy's jottings of Thelonious' handwritten guidelines and advice for group members still constitutes a primer for anyone who is playing music in an ensemble or otherwise working in non-WWE variants on the arts. His philosophy of music, life and art informs all of it.

Even 70 years after the release of Thelonious Monk: Genius Of Modern Music on Blue Note Records, his compositions are frequently performed but not necessarily entirely understood, even by world-class musicians. In the composer's words, "when you're swinging, swing some more!"

This is because Monk's compositions, even the simplest ones, remain difficult to play but easy to botch! Incredible music . . . and not for the dilettante or amateur!

2017 turns out to be the centennial for Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Dean Martin as well.