Monday, July 14, 2014
Here's the answer to the question, "are there any unbelievably cool cartoons from France we can post in honor of Bastille Day?" Yes - this one, a gem produced in 1934.
This classic and most original animated short was produced by painters Anthony Gross and Courtland Hector Hoppin.
The following version of La Joie de Vivre, one of three animated films produced in Paris by Hoppin (1906-1974) and Gross (1905-1984), is shorter but with a bit sharper image quality.
In either case, the film, which looks forward to the ambitious animated short subjects we'd see from the likes of National Film Board Of Canada and Zagreb four decades later, elicits a lusty Viva La France!
A less lusty but still awed and respectful Viva La France goes to their second cartoon, Fox Hunt, released in 1936. They started work on an animated version of Around the World In 80 Days for Alexander Korda, but war was declared before the film could be finished.
Now, if the name Anthony Gross sounds vaguely familiar to you, it's with good reason. Gross not only enjoyed a lengthy and astonishingly prolific career as a painter, illustrator and printmaker, he was, along with Edward Ardizzone, among the British born official war artists who documented the battles of World War II.
This included the North African Campaign, front line battles in India and Burma countering the strategy of Prime Minister D-Day invasion of Northern France, as well as following the Allied armies into Paris and Germany. Gross was there at the meeting of American and Russian forces at the River Elbe on April 25, 1945.
Acknowledgements, A.K.A. the appreciative tip of the Max Linder/Raymond Griffith top hat, go to Jerry Beck for posting The Fox Hunt, the West End At War website, and most of all, comic artist, animator, director and film historian Milton Knight, who covered the animated films of Anthony Gross and Courtland Hector Hoppin in a super article, The Shock Of The New, that posted on the Cartoon Research website on January 1.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
Well, the latest and not greatest news is that New Hampshire vintage comedy specialists Looser Than Loose Publishing will be closing up shop at the end of 2014. Dave and Ali Stevenson's DIY company has also been instrumental in making countless rare silents available on DVD.
Especially noteworthy are the unique and frequently brilliant comedies of the prolific Lloyd Hamilton.
The two Dizzy Damsels & Crazy Janes DVDS are a must-buy for anyone interested in the great comediennes of silent pictures.
Of the indies, this leaves the consistently top-notch classic cartoon specialist Thunderbean Animation and a few other companies that are more erratic in quality.
Along with Chris Snowden's Unknown Video shutting down last year, the closing of Looser Than Loose Publishing is bad news for silent movie fans. And, in general, culturally speaking, it's not good, very not good, when small labels which make DVDS, recordings and books available that no one else will do not survive.
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
(Note. . . An earlier version of this piece appeared on Eat With Annie, the website of Madame Blogmeister, food writer Annie Berrol)
The Our Gang comedies, at least until Hal Roach sold the rights to "the big studio" A.K.A. behemoth monolith Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bringing ruination, devastation and Janet Burston to the series, hold a prominent spot atop the list of Monsieur Blogmeister's absolute favorite films.
Although, arguably, the funniest of the talented kid comedian headliners were George "Spanky" McFarland and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, who would be the featured "dynamic duo" starting with the 1935-1936 season, in this correspondent's opinion, the earlier 2-reelers from 1930-1932, thanks to Our Gang founder Bob McGowan's direction, writing and a stellar ensemble cast, frequently rank among the series' all-time best.
Spanky McFarland made his debut in Free Eats (1932), yet another stellar entry in Our Gang lore.
Dogs Is Dogs, arguably the penultimate entry in the Our Gang series, is a Depression-era take on what used to be called “the mellerdrammer”.
The players are Our Gang stalwarts Dorothy DeBorba, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins and Matthew “Stymie” Beard, Sherwood Bailey, his German shepherd Nero (scourge of the local chicken population), demure and genteel Blanche Payson from the Laurel & Hardy films, and most importantly, the series’ Larry Olivier of canine thespians, Pete The Pup.
Director and series founder Robert McGowan had plenty of experience trotting out the warhorse storyline with a despicable Simon Legree sort threatening to take granny’s house while twiddling his mustache – with absolutely none of the style and panache of Snidely Whiplash. McGowan used the plotline twice in the 1930-1931 Our Gang season alone, in Helping Grandma and Fly My Kite.
In Dogs Is Dogs, the slithering Simon Legree “snake in the grass” component is played to the hilt by a combo of menacing 6 foot 5 former police woman Payson and, portraying the cowardly and loathsome son to a T, pint-sized villain Sherwood “Spud” Bailey.
The plot is a simple one. Dorothy and Wheezer live with an evil stepmother and her spoiled brat son. Both make their existences a living hell, even by Great Depression standards. Sherwood manages to be not merely unsympathetic, but whiny, sniveling, evil AND charmless – and worse yet, he tries to get Wheezer’s pal Pete The Pup killed!
What makes Dogs Is Dogs a foodie film for the ages is the memorable scene in which Stymie cons the avaricious yet stupid Sherwood into making breakfast. The ever-persuasive Stymie claims that food, especially ham and eggs, can talk. The ever-spoiled Sherwood – even more obnoxious than usual in his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit – takes a plate full of food of the icebox.
Sherwood (showing the ham and eggs to Stymie): “Why don’t they say something?”
Stymie: “You gotta kinda mess ‘em up a little bit in a frying pan – then they’ll talk – and how!
(NEXT SHOT – ham and eggs in pan, frying quite nicely)
Sherwood: When are they going to start talking?
Stymie: Gotta turn ‘em over, shuffle them around a little bit.
When the food fails to utter a single sound, Sherwood gives up and leaves. Stymie takes over and serves the splendid breakfast Sherwood left behind with Wheezer and Dorothy.
Dorothy: I knew ham and eggs couldn’t talk.
Stymie: Well, they’re saying hello to my stomach riggggggggght now.”
It’s even better than Stanley Tucci preparing a gorgeous egg dish at the end of Big Night.
Thursday, July 03, 2014
Not Just A Custard Pie: Dining Do's and Don'ts from The Surreal World Of Silent Film Comedy by Paul F. Etcheverry
(Note. . . An earlier version of this piece appeared in Eat Drink Films.)
When the actor, comedian and innovator Ernie Kovacs, then in his early days in local television, got stuck with hosting the afternoon Deadline For Dinner cooking show, he wanted to call it Dead Lion For Dinner. The answer was no. After all, National Geographic Channel didn't exist in 1950.
While fine dining options in the farthest corners of the Serengeti, then as now, prove somewhat limited - and throwing thick, juicy tenderloins from endangered species on the Weber would certainly constitute a faux pas - key rules of etiquette seldom change as society continues rapidly de-evolving through the decades.
Of course, nobody knew Emily Post rules regarding swanky (and not so swanky) dining quite like the great comedians and comediennes of silent movies!
Here are the following rules regarding fine dining and entertaining, applicable for 2014, but hard and fast as a 1914 Keystone comedy.
Rule 1 - Make Sure The Proprietor Of Your Favorite Dining Establishment Has Musical Training!
Illustrating this absolute: a comedienne who was the silent era's "wacky redhead" and lauded by no less than Stan Laurel - the great Alice Howell (1886-1961).
Twenty years before Lucille Ball made her silver screen debut as a showgirl in delirious Busby Berkeley musicals, Alice, the go-for-broke comedienne with a Q-Tip hairdo and a flair for knockabout farce, was tearing it up as a supporting player in Mack Sennett's rip-roaring Keystone Comedies. She would go on to headline her own series with various fun factories (Century Comedies, Emerald, Universal) from 1917-1925, before retiring from showbiz to become a real estate mogul.
Most of her starring vehicles are now lost films, including THE CABBAGE QUEEN (1918), in which spies are sent personally by Kaiser Wilhelm to steal Alice's recipe for sauerkraut - yes, almost a half century before Woody Allen's WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY and Phil Moskowitz' coveted egg salad.
Here's maestro Alice, skillfully conducting a bunch of slobs through a tuneful luncheon in CINDERELLA CINDERS (1920).
Rule 2 - If Your Favorite Dining Establishment's Line Cooks Can't Sing Or Play - Make Sure They Can Dance!
Forget those ZAGAT ratings, just be sure there's rhythm in the kitchen!
Illustrating this: a bit of culinary terpischore by Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle, from THE COOK (1918).Isadora Duncan was jealous!
Mr. Arbuckle was Keaton's mentor in the movie business and became a popular star of Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in 1913.
Roscoe Arbuckle launched his own studio, Comique Productions, and a new series in 1917, a happenstance of felicitous circumstances brought him in contact with Buster Keaton. Roscoe immediately cast Buster in THE BUTCHER BOY, the comedy he was shooting that day, which turned out to be the first in the Comique Series.
Frequently described "slapstick ballets", the Comique 2-reelers are to this day the most amazing displays of pure physical comedy ever produced, a veritable "can you top this" of somersaults, falls and impossible stunts. Co-stars, Arbuckle, Keaton and Al St. John constituted a slapstick "dream team"; all three could act, write and direct.
Alas, the tragic death of Virginia Rappe a few days following a Labor Day soiree hosted by Arbuckle meant screaming headlines, public vilification, three ensuing trials and a story which sold a gazillion Hearst newspapers. Arbuckle was banned by Will Hays and would not be seen again onscreen until Hey, Pop!, the first of his 1932-1933 series for Vitaphone.
Even after Arbuckle was acquitted - and the jury in trial #3 wrote a statement saying the public owed him an apology - he was banned from the screen. The trio of Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John would continue collaborating after the scandal, as Arbuckle worked incognito behind the camera as a director, scenarist and gag writer.
Rule 3 - Play With Your Food A.K.A. During Times Of Long Waits, Entertain Your Fellow Diners
Arguably the most famous silver screen example of NOT boring one's fellow diners to tears is the dream sequence from Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH in which The Little Tramp performs "The Dance Of The Potatoes" or "The Oceana Roll".
As this routine was originated in the 1918 film ROUGH HOUSE by the aforementioned Roscoe Arbuckle, it is not only possible but likely that this scene was Chaplin's homage to his friend and colleague from Mack Sennett's Keystone.
Once Charlie got that pesky penchant for pie-throwing out of his system with the mayhem of A NIGHT IN THE SHOW (Essanay, 1915) - recently shown to rousing response at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Fest - and an epic dessert-throwing melee in the 1916 Mutual 2-reeler BEHIND THE SCREEN, he was off to create a blend of comedy and pathos, exemplified by not just THE GOLD RUSH, but THE KID, THE CIRCUS and CITY LIGHTS.
Rule 4 - Do Not Entertain Your Fellow Diners By Barging On Stage
And, in the category of the social faux pas, the ultimate in "what not to do" when out on the town can be found in THAT'S MY WIFE, a film devoted to cramming as many episodes of public embarrassment as possible within a 19 minute running time.
This Laurel & Hardy vehicle is also devoted to jokes that absolutely, positively, could not be done once strict enforcement of the Production Code hit the movie business like a slapstick style "ton o' bricks" in July 1934. Throughout, The Boys demonstrate a conspicuous lack of social graces in public!
The bit that ends THAT'S MY WIFE re-does a routine previously performed brilliantly by Charley Chase and Gale Henry in HIS WOODEN WEDDING (1925). Premise on both: how does one retrieve a jewel that has fallen down a lady's gown?"
Rule 5 - Never Order A Side Dish That Can Fight Back
There are comedy buffs who will never, ever order oyster stew in a restaurant because of the famous "live oyster in the stew" routine.
It's a good bet that beachfront comics in coastal societies 6000 years ago did this bit even earlier than "The Mirror Routine" (immortalized by the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP and Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball on I LOVE LUCY, after at least two versions by Max Linder, another by Christie Comedies' Billy "The Goofy Gob" Dooley and one by cinema pioneer Alice Guy Blaché ).
Here is the first instance of "the oyster bit" - later remade in talkies by Curly Howard and Lou Costello - performed by Billy Bevan in this Mack Sennett comedy directed by Del Lord.
Rule 6 - When Showing Off Culinary Knowledge Via Entertaining, Be Careful About Your Wait Staff
In FROM SOUP TO NUTS, a social climber played by Anita Garvin gives a dinner party, desperately hoping to escape the hoi polloi and become the hostess with the mostess among the well-to-do set. Her first mistake: wearing a recalcitrant tiara.
Her second mistake: hiring Laurel & Hardy as wait staff.
Rule 7 - If You Kill Your Neighbor's Prize Chicken, Don't Serve It To Him For Dinner
This, indeed, was the plot premise from PASS THE GRAVY, from the Max Davidson series, just one of director Leo McCarey's many way-out takes at the Hal Roach Studio on the sitcom format. This series, starring veteran character actor and comedian Davidson (1875-1950) as the ever-aggravated patriarch of a Jewish family, was produced between McCarey's history-making stints creating the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy comedies. Author and historian Richard W. Bann has written eloquently about Davidson and his late 1920's series for Hal Roach.
In PASS THE GRAVY, Max's son, told to go to the butcher shop and buy a chicken for dinner, goes the 21st century foodie route, does Michael Pollan AND Barbara Kingsolver proud and kills a bird personally; alas, it's the neighbor's prize rooster, Brigham and said neighbor is coming over for dinner. A series of desperate efforts to conceal this knowledge from Max, including some stellar impromptu dancing and general tomfoolery by supporting players Martha Sleeper and Gene Morgan, ensue.
As Max's stock in trade was the middle-aged immigrant, an Old World gentleman ever-vexed by the customs of his new country, his films can be a hard sell for young 21st century audiences.
Davidson's movie career dated back to the 1911-1912 Biograph short subjects of D.W. Griffith and included playing supporting roles for top comediennes "Madcap Mabel" Normand and Fay Tincher. Max received some belated respect when the 2007 San Francisco Silent Film Festival showed a 35mm restored print from UCLA Film And Television Archive of THE BOY FRIEND (1929) as part of a Hal Roach Studio retrospective.
In closing, such dining dos and don'ts would extend far beyond the "microphone in the plant" era immortalized by SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. The Three Stooges, A.K.A. Los Tres Estúpidos, backed by ex-Sennett gag writers and directors Del Lord and Clyde Bruckman, made a career of remaking silent comedy jokes involving dining improprieties on an epic scale.
In feature films, Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot would carry on the silent comedy tradition of Chaplin, Parisian boulevardier Max Linder and American "silk hat slicker" Raymond Griffith with style and panache.
In the post-World War II comedy landscape, no less than Buster Keaton, along with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and the aforementioned Ernie Kovacs, would bring their unique approaches to dining mayhem and visual humor into the television age.
We'll give Mr. Kovacs the last word here. Although he did not get the opportunity to introduce the 1917 Fox Sunshine comedy ROARING LIONS AND WEDDING BELLS during his stint as the host of "Silents Please", by the time he Ernie wrote his 1961 ABC series, a groundbreaking blend of surreal comedy, music and WAY out-of-the-box thinking, he delivered a laugh-starved Cold War world. . . a dancing chicken.
Acknowledgements, A.K.A. tips of the Raymond Griffith top hat, go to Gary Meyer, Michael Guillen, Annichen Skaren, Milestone Films, The Criterion Collection and Josh Mills. Thanks!
Sunday, June 29, 2014
The calcium light in today's 1PM matinee at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum shines brightly on author, historian and one of cinema's first child stars, Diana Sara "Baby Peggy" Cary. She willbe there in person for today's program.
This program is part of the museum's three day Broncho Billy Film Festival, which is always informative, fun - and chock full of historic film footage.