Saturday, September 14, 2019

Back in New York and California: The Great Silent Movie Comedians

Back in big screen glory - Laurel & Hardy tomorrow evening at QED in Astoria, Queens.

The following Saturday, across the country from Astoria, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum presents Comedy Shorts Night, featuring Charlie Chaplin in The Pawnshop (1916), Buster Keaton in One Week (1920), Charley Chase in His Wooden Wedding (1925) and You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) starring Laurel & Hardy.

A week later, on the last weekend of September, the museum shall pay tribute to the 1920's comedy headliner for Mack Sennett and First National Pictures (and later, in the 1930's, an inventive story and gag writer for Laurel & Hardy feature films) Harry "The Little Elf" Langdon.

The key word is LAUGHS!

Laughs are king and will rule the roost at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on the last two weekends of September!

Film buffs and comedy fans: support your purveyors of classic movie goodness!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

September 10 Is World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. First and foremost, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is (800) 273-8255. Sadly, suicide is a topic which dovetails too often with the focuses of this blog: classic movies, comedy and 20th century show business.

Life is not easy for anyone, but can be particularly harsh on those whose profession is making people laugh on stage and screen.

The Suicide Prevention hotline may well have saved several of this blogger's all-time favorite 20th century performers, directors, writers and filmmakers.

Maybe a hotline or intervention would have averted tragedies involving a number of the greatest laugh-getters to ever star in feature films.

Touched upon this topic last year after the news broke that author/filmmaker/chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade had committed suicide. Two years earlier, the death of Robin Williams by suicide was a shocker.

If any readers of this blog find themselves in danger from severe clinical depression and considering suicide, again, the hotline number is (800) 273-8255. Use it. Go there first.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday, Howard Morris!

While watching clips from Your Show Of Shows, realized that one of the cast members was born 100 years ago today. That would be the prolific actor, comedian, cartoon voice artist, comedy writer, producer and director Howard Morris (September 4, 1919 – May 21, 2005).

Many of us of a certain age first became familiar with Howard Morris via his memorable pop star character Jet Screamer on The Jetsons.

The Brooklyn-born comedian and director began his career onstage as a classically trained Shakespearian actor.

As a troupe member on Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour, he contributed incendiary performances to dozens of incredibly funny sketches.

Howard's gonzo performance as the indescribable yet quite enthusiastic "Uncle Goopy" is a highlight one of the most celebrated comedy sketches in television history,"This Is Your Story," from Your Show of Shows.

Duo pieces on Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour featuring Howard and Sid Caesar are frequently hilarious. The sheer physical contrast between the two is amazing.

In addition to his numerous performances as an actor and comedian on stage, screen and TV, Morris directed feature films. One of his most memorable was the 1967 comic whodunit Who's Minding The Mint, chock full of wonderful comedians.

Although Mr. Morris directed dozens of TV shows and voiced countless cartoon characters, he is very likely associated most with his portrayal of Ernest T. Bass, the backwoods nut job he played with great relish and enthusiasm in a handful of memorable episodes of The Andy Griffith show. Like Uncle Goopy, the character is funny!

Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day Entertainment

As this blog tends to be very comedy-centric, it's difficult to even come up with a very short list of favorite Hollywood feature films about Labor Day. Documentaries (Barbara Kopple's 1976 film Harlan County, USA) on labor movements, yes, absolutely, but Hollywood movies, besides Martin Ritt's Norma Rae, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, Norman Jewison's F.I.S.T. (co-written by its star, Sylvester Stallone, with Joe Estherhaus) and John Sayles' Matewan, not so much.

Thinking of "jobs and working conditions you hate", sequences involving assembly lines in Chaplin's Modern Times and the René Clair flick that inspired it, À Nous la Liberté, immediately come to mind.

Thinking of the working conditions and the 19th century style approach to employees' rights that spawned the labor movement in the first place, a certain sketch from Your Show Of Shows comes to mind. It's a spoof of the kind of movies made in the first decade of the 20th century, the heydey of Florence Lawrence, the Biograph girl. It both parodies the earliest American narrative movies in a very funny way and points out the kinds of abuses that led to the formation of the labor movement. As usual, the cast of Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris is hilarious.

While the 1978 film Norma Rae, starring Sally Field and Beau Bridges, is certainly a stellar flick about the labor movement, here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we like this sendup from SCTV, "My Factory My Self," more. It manages to skewer a bunch of then-trendy movies from that era (including Kramer Vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman) and 1970's pop culture cliches mercilessly. Andrea Martin, arguably the greatest living comedienne not named Carol Burnett, is particularly brilliant here.

Early 1930's Warner Brothers/First National features such as Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys Of The Road, gritty Great Depression films about a society in which there were no jobs, tend to be my personal picks for this weekend. Happy Labor Day - and we sincerely hope those of you who are working today are either getting time-and-a-half or double time.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Tomorrow Night: Cartoons in Brooklyn!

Friday night at 389 Melrose Street in Brooklyn, NY, the final Cartoon Carnival screening of the summer presents nearly two hours of early silent rarities and 1930s classics.

This is show #82 in the Cartoon Carnival series of screenings, featuring animation rarities on glorious 16mm film, curated by Tommy Stathes.

Friday night's program pays tribute to cartoons featuring the sawdust and spectacle of the big top. Mr. Stathes, producer of the Cartoon Roots DVDS which has brought animation rarities to Blu-Ray and DVD, elaborates:

"while I normally don’t publish Cartoon Carnival set lists in advance, I thought I’d share one of my favorite early 1930s circus and clown cartoons. . .This early Van Beuren short is something I grew up watching—and loving—as a toddler on one of those cheap-o public domain VHS collections, where it was actually being passed off as a Mickey Mouse cartoon. I wasn’t complaining then, and I’m still not complaining now."

Cartoon Carnival 82: Clown Town features Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Felix the Cat, Bobby Bumps, and other cartoon favorites on the big screen, as they were intended to be seen, with an audience ready to laugh. This, in addition to the epic Labor Day weekend Cinecon film festival in Hollywood, will give classic movie buffs on both coasts an opportunity to get together, have fun and see some great vintage entertainment.

Brooklyn will not outdone by this program, as silent comedy export Nelson Hughes returns to Astoria with That Slapstick Show on September 15. The borough will be filled with classic movies, cartoons and laughs!

Friday, August 23, 2019

This Weekend in San Francisco: Godzillafest 2019

As of 5:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on August 23, 2019, Godzillafest is back, bombarding San Francisco's Balboa Theatre with three days of big screen fun.

That means 12 classic Godzilla movies on two screens!

Kicking off the festivities will be Frankenstein Conquers The World and War Of The Gargantuas.

Also on Saturday's bill: Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, Terror Of Mechagodzilla, Son Of Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters.

There will also be two of my all-time favorites in the genre, Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero and Godzilla Vs. Mothra.

Special guests will include Michael Dougherty, who will m.c. a special screening of the latest in the incorrigible fire-breathing Thunder Lizard's saga, Godzilla King of the Monsters, on Saturday night.

Hosting on both Friday and Saturday Night: Lord Blood-Rah of Lord Blood-Rah's Nerve Wrackin' Theatre and Creatures-Con.

Megalon and Mechagodzilla get the thunder lizard spotlight as the festival progresses and Sunday's lineup will include Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster!

The Balboa Theatre is located on 3630 Balboa Street, between 37th and 38th Avenues, in San Francisco's Outer Richmond district. For more info, go to the Bay Area Film Events website.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Rockabillies, "Guitar Men" and Singing Cowboys in Cartoons and Movies

The last two posts were about guitarists, so this one will attempt to follow the six string into movies.

Funny, very few movies with "guitar" featured prominently in the title actually show someone playing one, as Jerry Reed does beautifully here.

In Nicholas Ray's indescribable and gender-bending Trucolor western Johnny Guitar, the guitar is emblematic of the character portrayed by Sterling Hayden - and we really want to see him rock out on that axe he's been lugging around.

Of course, if there was an axe in Johnny Guitar, either Joan Crawford or Mercedes McCambridge would plant it in your forehead.

We'll kick this pickin' post off with a couple of cartoons from the Tom & Jerry series created by the production unit led by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. When it comes to cartoons prominently featuring country-western pickers, Pecos Pest is the Tom & Jerry cartoon that immediately comes to mind. Was it Hanna, Barbera or animators Irv Spence, Ken Muse, Ed Barge and Ray Patterson who were the guitar player and/or country-western music and singing cowboy enthusiasts in that MGM cartoon studio crew?

A key running joke in the Tom & Jerry series involves Jerry Mouse interfering with Tom's best efforts at wooing the gals. In Solid Serenade, Tom plays the upright bass and sings Louis Jordan (the r&b/swing guy of Tympani 5 fame, not the star of Gigi) tunes. Tom doesn't succeed in that cartoon or in the following one. The question is, what country-western star of the day is Tom impersonating in Texas Tom?

One would think numerous jokes about guitar-playing could be found in classic cartoons, but most often this entails only a few seconds of screen time, as is the case with the musical Tex Avery cartoon The Magical Maestro or Bugs Bunny whipping out an acoustic guitar for a single gag in the classic cartoon Slick Hare, directed by Friz Freleng.

A later classic from Friz Freleng and his crew at Warner Brothers, The Three Little Bops, made in 1957, features music by Shorty Baker and story/voice work by Stan Freberg - and, naturally, a brief guitar solo is offered by one of the porcine multi-instrumentalist hipsters who play everything.

Many musical acts appeared in one-reelers such as the Lee Deforest Phonofilms, Vitaphone Varieties and Fox Movietone Musicals in the early years of talkies.

Arguably the first string-meister to whip out a guitar in movies was Roy Smeck, the "Wizard Of The Strings," who made cinematic and sound waves with his Hawaiian guitar in several Vitaphone Varieties, beginning in 1926.

Columbia Pictures made a memorable musical short subject starring country-western star Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. The Singing Brakeman.

The first popular guitarist to be seen in feature films was the great Eddie Lang (1902-1933). The guitarist's segment with violinist Joe Venuti in Universal's epic early talkie musical King Of Jazz is still pretty darn astonishing almost 90 years later.

Eddie has some great tunes in The Big Broadcast with songstress Ruth Etting and, soon to be the biggest musical act in show business, Bing Crosby.

Even more stunning than Eddie Lang appearing in movies: a major Paramount Pictures star, Mae West, seen strumming a guitar in Klondike Annie. It doesn't look like Mae is actually playing those tasty single-note lines and chords - there's another guitarist offscreen - but the song and her vocal sound great. Makes one wish she accompanied herself on a musical instrument in more of her movies; after all, Mae mastered everything she tried.

Not long after Bing Crosby and Mae West became movie stars at Paramount in the early 1930's, the phenomenon of the singing cowboys hit the silver screen. Gene Autry was first, soon followed by Roy Rogers, not the current slide guitar ace but the movies' King Of The Cowboys.

A certain young man from Tupelo was a big fan of the singing cowboys and their music - Elvis Aaron Presley.

Of the many feature films Elvis Presley starred in - and he sings and dances in every one - there are few in which he actually plays the guitar, as he does so often in his TV appearances.

Elvis delivers vocal and guitar heroics - while looking great in a suit - in Viva Las Vegas (co-starring with the always formidable Ann-Margret).

Elvis gives us a bit of guitar as well in arguably his best feature film, King Creole, directed by none other than Michael Curtiz.

Elvis also rocks out on the acoustic guitar in G.I. Blues.

Presley's rockabilly contemporaries Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran beat Elvis to the punch, rocking out (as did Little Richard) in The Girl Can't Help It, an amazing musical time capsule and satire of 1950's mores and pop culture directed by Frank Tashlin.

Back to the singing cowboys, Roy Rogers was the rare movie star who could ride, rope, do stunts, sing and play the guitar!

Long after his silver screen and TV careers ended, Roy, along with his intrepid wife and co-star Dale Evans and the never surpassed Badass of the Movie Steeds, Trigger, would wow the crowds at rodeos, county fairs and western movie festivals coast to coast. Both singing cowboys appeared on Late Night With David Letterman (NBC version). Roy, fittingly, finished off his guest appearance with a rendition of "Happy Trails."

Happy Trails to all of you from Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog!