Monday, December 31, 2007
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Friday, November 30, 2007
The whole world doesn't get to be Martin Scorcese, Burt Bacharach, or Jude Law. Far too often they end up being the almost-made-its. The directors of television commercials, composers of jingles or soundtracks for forgotten cartoons; actors who weren't sure what was worse: being in this low-budget movie or not being in this low-budget movie. Still, they got a shot at being involved with their chosen profession.
On Saturday night, December 8, 2007, these almost-made-its get their day, or night, as part of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival. In a program of 16mm films (the analog of video), some of the corners of pop culture live again. Old commercials, weird short subjects, trailers from obscure films and other cinematic oddballs make up the program. So weird, in fact, you can't even find this stuff on YouTube.
The Psychotronix Film Festival shows only 16mm films, the vinyl of visuals, an archaic medium that brings us wondrous images of a near forgotten time. Antiquated commercials, neglected cartoons, previews from old movies, various short subjects which may have been intentionally educational then that are now just unintentionally funny. These films are the vox populi, not the master's voice, made by people looking for a paycheck, not immortality. The Psychotronix wants you to experience something not old enough to be precious nor young enough to be contemporary. A black and white world of irradiated, enormous insects, big hair, large cars, and happy people satisfied by the mild, mild, mild taste of tobacco. When the only worrisome foreign ownership was the prevalence of Canada Dry soft drinks.
An invisible art, this collection of films would never be celebrated by the academy. Monsters and clowns, the goofs and the gallants, products long gone and quaint notions of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. All this and more at the Psychotronix. Free snax, (with an "x") and door prizes. There will also be surprise guests as well as a roomful of people who like the same things you do- and how often does that happen?
These are films with never-weres not has-beens, though that doesn't mean that they are without talent, even if only a talent to amuse, at this point. You will want to see the Psychotronix- for the history, for the hysteria, for the histrionics. You'll laugh and wonder how it was that this corner of culture could ever have escaped your attention. See the shocking, eye-staggering truth, the follies and foibles, the catchy tunes, and the tidal waves of terror that are all part of the Psychotronix Film Festival.
Before you get too smug, remember that the distance of time allows us to see a culture's conceits. How will the future look at you, look at us? The future is now and the Psychotronix Film Festival is just days away. Previous Psychotronix have sold-out, so for best seating, get there early. Doors open at 6:00 PM.
Where? Room 5015, Foothill Community College campus, Los Altos Hills, CA (El Monte exit off of Highway 280)
When: Saturday December 8th, 7:00 to 11:00 PM
Admission: $5.00 donation benefits KFJC 89.7 FM
Why: You are a glutton for punishment and desire a cheesy door prize
Monday, November 12, 2007
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
This event features comic book artists, belly dancers and John Stanley of KTVU-TV's celebrated "Creature Features" late night show of the 70's and 80's. We'll fit right in. Movies follow the 6pm costume contest.
We present our customary hallucinatory excursion through the irritated bowels of popular culture (in glorious 16mm): vintage TV commercials, surreal and obscure classic cartoons, campy musical shorts, well-meaning but now ludicrous educational films, indescribably bizarre short subjects, non-union actors in cheap monster suits, anything involving double entendres and coming attractions trailers from plump, Cheese Whiz-fed turkeys that would invariably make the heart of the late Edward D. Wood Jr. go pitty-pat.
Film program co-producers "Sci Fi Bob" Ekman and Paul F. Etcheverry consider the evening a smashing success when the audience starts heckling the movies before the projection lamp goes on. Mr. Lobo and the fabulous, always-fetching Queen Of Trash from KTEH-TV's Cinema Insomnia will be the hosts with the most.
The Carnival Of Stars transpires this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, November 10-11, from 9 AM to 9 PM, at Centennial Hall, 22292 Foothill Boulevard (at City Center Drive), Hayward, CA.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Monday, October 08, 2007
Machine Head's excellent headbanging performance is wrapped around a tragic and operatic play that could be described as "The Elephant Man" meets "Romeo And Juliet"; the former, a shunned and reviled outcast, decides to end it all and asks the latter, the sole person who loves the good-hearted but miserable grotesque, to do him in.
The play was shot at San Francisco's historic Regency Theater (built 1909) in the style of equally operatic silent movies, those from around 1918-1919 - I think of D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms in particular. It closes, appropriately, with the cast taking a bow.
This music video in the style of silent movies premiered on October 4th, the birthday of Buster Keaton, that most visionary of all silent screen artists.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Saturday, October 06, 2007
Mr. Lobo's comments: "Set your tricoder for 1:00AM Saturday Night on KTEH it's gonna be a doozey! You got to watch to the very end...well I won't spoil it but I'll say you'll never look at John Stanley the same way again! It's a Creature Features tribute show...I hope we made Bob proud and I hope you guys love it...there were many sacrifices made to make it possible and everybody gave it 110%! Watch "Nightmare In Blood" on Cinema Insomnia and Keep America Strong!"
I'm hearing the "Creature Features" theme song in my damaged brain already.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Enjoy this clip from one of Buster's greatest two-reelers, One Week.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Paul Terry was both an early animation innovator and the classic unrepentant robber-baron of cartoon history. He dangled a cut of the profits as a carrot for his longtime employees, then screwed ALL of them by hoarding 100% of the loot when he sold the studio to CBS. It was said that, if you interviewed for a job with Mr. Terry, he'd tell you right off "if you don't want to make shit, don't come to work here."
The creator of the Aesop's Fables series was also a silent animation pioneer and inspiration to young hopefuls (like Walt Disney) in the early days, but arguably way too much of an activist producer, strictly controlling direction and story content, to be an exemplary "cult cartoon" maker.
Terry, oddly enough, did offer his animators a certain amount of leeway within the strict formulas; he employed patron saint of cult cartoon animators Jim Tyer and, amazingly, left him alone to express a highly original and unfettered imagination. Just in case you're not an obsessed animation historian and haven't heard of Mr. Tyer, here are some samples of his distinctive handiwork.
The fact that Tyer, one wild and crazy guy, was actually free to animate this way - and create sequences like the following - gives Mr. Terry a place in the cult cartoon panorama.
Monday, October 01, 2007
As I have not even unloaded the car on return from a wonderful road trip yet, I absolutely will be "Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog" today. So, continuing the topic of obscure cult/psychotronic cartoons, I will direct you to this very good recent piece about Terrytoons from the blog by Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi.
John K's comment that Terrytoons "were fully animated but I knew there was something unique and strange about them," is right on the money - and is something a lot of "cult cartoons" have in common.
Here's a unique and strange Heckle & Jeckle cartoon, The Power Of Thought, from 1948:
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The studio of Ub Iwerks, the guy who animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoons and was certainly the fastest pencil in the west, created some of the most psychotronic and psychedelic of cult cartoons.
After his stellar, often brilliant animation enlivened the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series, Disney's ace animator split the Mouse Factory - he hoped - for fame and fortune producing his own cartoons in 1930. Neither fame nor fortune happened. Ub's Flip The Frog, Willie Whopper and Comicolor Fairytale series flopped like a shameless NBA power forward.
The story goes that one could never, ever bring the subject of his unsuccessful studio up with Ub - decades later, it was still too painful for him to discuss. Little did the quiet but groundbreaking animator, inventor and special effects guru know, the eccentric and remarkably un-ingratiating product of his studio would find cultish rediscovery after his death.
The very qualities that absolutely doomed these shorts in their original release - weird graphic designs (that make you wonder if the artists were popping heavy duty psychedelics), aggressively uncuddly characters and a dreamlike atmosphere - allowed them to somehow weather the test of time. The 1930-1933 Flip The Frog series could at times be as surreal as a Fleischer cartoon.
For MGM distribution, after the Flip The Frog series ended, the Iwerks studio produced a series starring a tell-tale tellin' Baron Munchausen kid named Willie Whopper. The wilder the tales, the better the cartoon.
Here are two of the wildest Willie Whopper cartoons, Stratos-Fear and Hell's Fire, a.k.a. Vulcan Entertains. The story goes that the former was directed and largely animated by the legendary Grim Natwick. Animation historians out there: tell me if I'm wrong! But not until you enjoy some of the best classic cartoons from the 1930's.
The Comicolor Fairytale series ran from 1933-1936 and would be the Iwerks Studio entry in the "let's see if we can make our own version of something like Disney's Silly Symphonies" sweepstakes. While the Comicolors are frequently enjoyable, colorful and entertaining cartoons, there are not in any way like the original Silly Symphonies, which were originally animated in some cases entirely by Ub for Disney in 1928-1929 (The Skeleton Dance and Hell's Bells particularly outstanding among them).
Like the Willie Whopper cartoons, the Comicolor Fairytales featured animation by several heavyweights in the field: the aforementioned Grim Natwick, as well as Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster and Berny Wolf.
Some of the Comicolors, Jack Frost and The Brave Tin Soldier in particular, convey the aforementioned dreamlike atmosphere along with a genuine charm that even evaded the big budget Disney and Harman-Ising studios.
While perhaps only one of every three Iwerks Studio shorts demonstrated true blazing inspiration, those exceptions invariably proved surreal, memorable and striking.
Routinely dismissed as worthless crap are the later Iwerks Studio endeavors, which appeared as entries in the black and white Looney Tunes (in these cases, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were among the Warners animators who made Porky Pig cartoons for Iwerks) and Columbia Color Rhapsodies series. Your Blogmeister champions some of these films, particularly the art deco orgy Merry Mannequins and the truly psychedelic Horse On The Merry-Go-Round as among the studio's most imaginative work.
Here are two more from Ub's stretch making cartoons at his Santa Monica studio as part of the Rodney Dangerfield of cartoon series, the Columbia Color Rhapsodies. The first, The Frog Pond, was transferred from a dark and substandard print, but will do until a better digital copy from 35mm comes along. Most notable in this cartoon is some killer animation by the wonderful Irv Spence, later known for his work on Hanna & Barbera's Tom and Jerry cartoons.
The second, Midnight Frolics, is a musical featuring exceptionally goofy ghosts.
What I like about Iwerks in effect crushed his dreams of popular success with his own studio - the fact that he made cartoons that were in no way, shape or form like Disney's. Would Disney build cartoons around art deco mannequins, a grotesque, knife-wielding "thug frog", dentistry-induced hallucinations, "pin cushion men" or gibberish speaking space aliens? I don't think so.
Friday, September 14, 2007
To this day, many decades later, the Van Beuren cartoons manage to be simultaneously inept, saucy and hilarious.
Here are a few great and indescribably bizarre examples of animated mayhem from the New York "B" cartoon studio that resided just down the block from Fleischer's:
And then there was Columbia Pictures sales executive turned cartoon producer Charles Mintz (1889-1939). . .In the 1920's, businessman Charles Mintz tried to show Walt Disney who was boss by taking his starring character and most of his staff. Could the thoroughly maligned outfit known as the Screen Gems Studio have been God's revenge on Mintz for screwing Walt Disney out of his studio and rights to the beloved Oswald The Lucky Rabbit back in the 20's? Or was the fact that Universal Pictures subsequently won rights to Oswald and sent Mintz packing retribution enough?
In any case, after Universal ate Mintz' lunch, he retreated to a more hands-off approach - so it's very likely that Mintz' disinterest enabled the preponderence of bizarre cartoons that emerged under his watch in the 1930's as head of the Columbia/Screen Gems Studio. Another factor was the presence of the unique, imaginative and royally twisted gag mind of director/storyman/animator Sid Marcus. At one point, both the looked-down-upon Mintz cartoons and those of Ub Iwerks' struggling studio were released in the Color Rhapsodies series. Both meet all of the criteria for cult cartoons!
Here are some 1931 Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons produced by Mintz, the former by the production crew headed by Manny Gould (yes, the same guy who contributed stellar animation to Bob Clampett and Robert McKimson cartoons at Warner Bros.) and Ben Harrison, the latter by Sid Marcus, Dick Huemer and Art Davis.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Sunday, September 09, 2007
The next question: what cartoon producer would be the Walt Disney of cult/psychotronic cartoons? It's tantamount to asking who's the D.W. Griffith of nudie films, but let's start with . . .
Here's a 1931 cartoon, Goofy Goat, by this New York-based independent producer:
The little studio that could then produced The Snowman, starring, you guessed it, an abominable snowman. Like Goofy Goat, this cartoon was originally in two-strip Technicolor, but only black and white prints exist today.
Eshbaugh also created the first Wizard Of Oz cartoon, which features a soundtrack by Carl Stalling.
Then Ted produced cartoons in RKO's Rainbow Parade series, including Pastry Town Wedding and Japanese Lanterns (which, unfortunately, only exists in black and white prints - it's a lost film in the original Technicolor) as well as a very long commercial for Borden's. . . the definitely not-of-this-world classic The Sunshine Makers:
Yes, Sunshine Makers starred suspiciously happy dwarves who guzzled sunshine milk, well, before it was illegalized. They convert a bunch of depressive dwarves without as much as one self-help book. What designer drug was Borden injecting into their milk, anyway?
The Eshbaugh studio also made commercials, including this Wonder Bread advertising film, originally produced for the 1939 Worlds Fair.
Little is heard from Eshbaugh until a re-emergence during the WW2 years.
In Cap'n Cub, a fuzzy wuzzy bear bombs WWII Japan back to pre-civilization - so the survivors could star in Fleischer's "Stone Age" cartoons.
Unquestionably, Ted Eshbaugh deserves a "Cult Cartoons" bowling shirt.
Friday, September 07, 2007
The phrase “cult movies” is not meant to describe the entertainment preferences of Heaven's Gate "straight to Saturn" club members, David “Go Ahead, Burn Us Down - See If I Care” Koresh, the Reverend Jim “Kool-Aid” Jones, Charlie “They Wouldn't Let Me Be A Monkee” Manson or "mass murder on behalf of (pick a deity)" psycho killers.
This term usually refers to schlocky drive-in B-films, featuring mad scientists, hideous monsters, radioactive bugs, rampaging dinosaurs and greasy-haired, booze-swillin’, big-boobed platinum blonde pot smokin’ juvenile delinquents out for a cheap thrill (no doubt hoping for the cameo appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent or, if a subterranean hipster, Charlie Parker).
Animation historian Jerry Beck coined the phrase "cult cartoons" in a 1980 article to describe "a coveted few Hollywood cartoons that have a magical quality and appeal with their audience of cartoon fans (and non-fans) that far surpasses their production (story, art and technical) value."
As Jerry's list of the top five cult cartoons includes Chuck Jones' DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH1/2 CENTURY, this is not limited to the cartoon equivalent of campy low-budget monster movies. He does note that cult cartoons offer "something unique about them that makes a person vividly remember the film days, weeks, years after viewing."
Many of my favorite cult cartoons scared the living daylights out of me in my childhood.
Cult movies and cult cartoons embrace both elephantine and miniscule budgets, the theatre, the multiplex, the grindhouse and in some cases the outhouse.
Any cult (or psychotronic) cartoon worth its saline must meet any two of the following criteria:
- no pun is too obvious, no joke too stupid, no sight gag too ridiculous for inclusion in the cartoon
- film or series has been the object of universal vilification by critics, bloggers and even knowledgeable historians
- identified as among the worst cartoons or studios ever by at least one Golden Age animator who lived long enough to write memoirs
- what the late, great Frank Zappa termed “cheapnis”
- a naive, unconscious and usually pointless surrealism that gives the proverbial finger to the “let’s copy real life” aesthetic. . .
- blatant, shameless propaganda (Great Depression and World War II era cartoons and Civil Defense films)
- a mixture of artistic inspiration, the willingness to offend, genuine laughs and disturbing overtones - provided the cartoon was produced at least four decades before the heyday of Andrew Dice Clay. After all, bad taste and general excess, once fashionable, become a bore.
Here is a quintessential psychotronic cartoon, Balloon Land, produced in 1935 by the Ub Iwerks Studio. This psychedelic, dreamlike and bizarre piece, starring a quite phallic "pin cushion man" (maniacally voiced by Billy Bletcher - and Sigmund Freud would have loved him), without a doubt, must have been one of the essential building block cartoons of David Lynch's childhood.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
This one, The Bad Genius, was produced in 1932 by the infamous Charles Mintz (who thought he got the last laugh when he took control of Disney's Oswald The Lucky Rabbit character and hired away Walt's staff).
The following, Yelp Wanted and Sunday Clothes, are the first and third entries in the Scrappy cartoon series, produced by ex-Fleischer Studio artists who brought a certain East Coast sensibility to West Coast animation.
Both opuses de Scrappy are truly twisted, in bad taste, and look like they were drawn by R. Crumb - in short, everything we love about pre-Code psychotronic cartoons!
A fair amount of the cartoony goodness was by the legendary Dick Huemer, previously known for stellar work on Fleischer's Koko The Clown and subsequently a key storyman with Disney (he co-wrote Dumbo). Additional scenes arose from the pungent pen of gagman par excellence Sid Marcus, later known as the guy who, with Robert McKimson, created The Tasmanian Devil at Warners. And responsible for the remaining classic rubber hose animation: the great Warner Bros. animator and director Art Davis, who worked in the cartoon biz for eight decades.
For the last word on Scrappy cartoons, check out the Scrappyland site by journalist and vintage animation expert Harry McCracken.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Senator Craig, shut up and pay the 5000 bucks. And call George Michael - he's lonely.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
"Prog rock" could mean everything from thoughtful, tuneful pop (Barclay James Harvest) to jazz-rock jams (Soft Machine) to Wagnerian spectacle (Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman) to hallucinatory surrealist futuristic Broadway (early Genesis). And I'm still seeking the quintessential Prague Prog Rock ensemble.
"Prog rock" could also mean whatever lovely, wondrous, twisted synthesis of diverse musical genres bandleader-guitarist Robert Fripp was deep into that year, in the case of the following clip, the 1972 version of King Crimson:
Robert Fripp - guitar; John Wetton - bass; David Cross - violin; Bill Bruford - drums; Jamie Murr - drums and percussion
One of my all-time favorites from the prog rock and fusion era was a unique band from Holland, Focus.
Here's one among quite a few video clips of their piece-de-resistance, "Hocus Pocus", the mindboggling yodeling-vocalese-opera-whistling-fire breathing proto-metal number that was the most wonderfully weird thing to hit 1960's and 1970's Top 100 besides Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa".
For me, the following version of Hocus Pocus takes the proverbial cake, as the customary guitar gymnastics by Jan Akkerman are even more ridiculous than usual.
And besides, the band is introduced by Gladys Knight, a fine singer with or without The Pips.
Jan Akkerman, guitar and lute; Thijs Van Leer - keyboards and flute; Bert Ruiter - bass; Pierre Van der Linden - drums
Monday, August 20, 2007
For this month's Burt Bacharach Day, here's a stellar performance by the finest Bacharach interpreter whose name isn't Dionne Warwick or Elvis Costello, the incredible Dusty Springfield.
Uploaded by pierrot77
Combine elements of Dusty's impassioned version of "I Don't Know What To Do With Myself" with the take-no-prisoners rendition by The White Stripes and you get some kind of epiphany.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Max, we can't thank you enough. Keep soaring.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Mr. Roach also blazed trails as a civil rights activist, global cultural ambassador and teacher. He was also that rarity, a truly open-minded creative artist, always ready to build bridges between generations, nationalities and genres. Proving repeatedly that nothing is mutually exclusive, Max turned conventional wisdom on its sorry, timid ass.
Here's a sample of the pure magic the percussion master could conjure from a hi-hat.
I consider myself truly blessed to have heard Max, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Jack DeJohnette, Dannie Richmond, Andrew Cyrille, Famoudou Don Moye and other amazing drummers in person - and boy, am I sorry I didn't catch Buddy Rich and Jo Jones.
Enjoy this clip of Max' quartet - Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet, Billy Harper on the tenor saxophone and Reggie Workman, the beating heart on the upright bass - kicking serious ass while challenging conventional wisdom in 1977.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Anything that strikes me about this story?
- Both Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron received death threats over breaking a home run record. Yes, death threats over, of all things, sports. . . Roll those words around in your mind again, death threats. What are these people thinking? These are baseball players, for cryin' out loud. What variant of pond scum (and I say that with apologies to all the nice pond scum) squanders energy and time directing death threats at professional athletes?
- Barry's homer put the Giants ahead in a game they eventually lost, due to a four run rally off their horrid bullpen, a shell-shocked corps that invariably brings reliable relief to the other team.
- Cheating? If I were Giants owner Peter Magowan (and I'm not), I'd pay Hall Of Famer Gaylord Perry to personally teach Barry Zito and the misbegotten Giants relievers the good ole' country sinker. Then we'll win some ballgames and both Barries could have some fun!
- Sanctimonious commish Allan H. "Bud" Selig should have checked his own ego at the door and let George W. Bush be commissioner of baseball way back when.
- I'm glad this is all over - now I can get a good seat when Giants phenom Tim "Lights Out" Lincecum pitches.
Monday, August 06, 2007
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Indeed, this is an amazing treasure trove for film buffs and includes a host of intriguing extras. If you're an animation or classic movie buff, just buy it and enjoy.
Kudos to Jerry Beck and many others who made this happen!
Monday, July 30, 2007
I get asked what our "themes" are in these programs (and ask myself, "you mean, we have themes?"). Well, here goes. . .
- non-union actors in cardboard robot suits
- non-union actors dressed as aliens
- non-union actors dressed as gorilla suits
- trailers from horrid movies
- calypso music
- swing music
- early rock music
- car, cigarette and theatre snack bar commercials
- any film we can find with unsubtle double entendres
- surreal and psychedelic 1930's cartoons
- 1950's "duck and cover" films
- "educational" films that went horribly, dreadfully wrong
- anything that provokes the response "what were they thinking?"
- general mayhem and political incorrectness
- and, yes, showgirls
I think that's a start. See you there.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Felix breaks "the third wall" before Bertolt Brecht, before Tex Avery, before Olsen and Johnson, before Ernie Kovacs, in this remarkable 1928 cartoon by Otto Messmer. Disregard the cheesy soundtrack.
If this just isn't enough Otto Messmer for you, ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive has posted these excellent Felix The Cat comics.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Felix The Cat goes Dutch in Two-Lip Time (1926), a classic cartoon by the incomparable Otto Messmer. I have also heard that early animation stalwarts Bill Nolan and Raoul Barré worked on this cartoon (if any of you experts and historians out there in cyberspace can confirm or deny this, by all means leave a comment).
The silent Felix series manages to be simultaneously cartoony, minimalistic and otherworldly. And they still deliver the goods with audiences - I've witnessed this first hand. While the subsequent retirement in 1927 of pioneering animator Raoul Barré couldn't have helped matters for the Pat Sullivan Studio, the series nonetheless continued its winning streak.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
My last entry covering the 12th San Francisco Silent Film Festival will attempt to explain something that totally defies rational explanation: the fascinating yet disturbing allure of ultra-rare time capsules from the earliest days of cinema. How early? Imagine movie buffs watching Ratatouille in, say, 2111-2114 - that's how early!
Serge Bromberg, founder of Lobster Films, presented one of his celebrated Retour de Flamme (Saved From The Flames) programs - an annual tradition in Paris - for this year's fest. While the show included a very funny 1928 short about a drunken, showgirl-crazy fireman who saw naked Folies-Bergere dancers, including a somewhat more clothed but always witty and striking Josephine Baker, everywhere he looked, most of the 35mm French rarities dated from the turn of the 20th century. The core of the program spotlighted ultra-rare "trick films" by Georges Méliès, Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomom, Ferdinand Zecca and others.
The modus operandi of the earliest trick films is "hey, look - we can do this", and draws from magic tricks, vaudeville and Grand Guignol. One very early "short short" solely featured a guy getting his head chopped off, while another (more entertaining) later trick film had a fellow's barber decapitate and re-capitate him - something I'm pretty sure was not taught in barber college. Another trick film portrayed an overenthusiastic musician who, incessantly playing his clarinet for captive audiences, suffered an accident that shoved the instrument through and out the top of his head; the big joke, even better than Steve Martin's arrow-through-the-head gag, was that he continued playing. Still another sublimely ridiculous reel consisted entirely of a zaftig showgirl doing a series of little dances with an actor in a giant pig costume.
The fascination in such wonderfully bizarre relics is self-evident, but what causes me to describe them as disturbing? It isn't the content, but the visceral experience of seeing living history: walking, breathing people who lived and died long ago in a 19th century Victorian world so very different from our own. Some of this rings true in the more advanced pre-WWI silent cinema of D.W. Griffith, Max Linder, G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson and others, but it's really resonant after experiencing 90 minutes of pre-1905 movies - and brings one vividly in touch with that pesky, nagging topic of mortality.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Alas, Burt wrote nothing (that I know of) to accompany silent movies, but I'll pay tribute to the great pop composer-arranger-songwriter anyway. This month's clip, of L.A. psychedelic-garage-folk-punk rockers Love performing Bacharach and David's "My Little Red Book" on American Bandstand, is precisely the kind of unorthodox treatment of Burt songs I like.
It's unlikely that Burt and Hal liked this rocked-out 1966 variation on this tune, but who cares - it ties in with the stretch of Arthur Lee and Love related material I posted earlier this month.
I'm still waiting for Elvis Costello's variation on "My Little Red Book".
Thursday, July 19, 2007
You won't hear much about Max (1875-1950), whose career dated back to D.W. Griffith's heydey at Biograph, these days. The Berlin-born comedian's stock-in-trade was a Yiddish stereotype, rarely seen today, but absolutely rampant in the silent era. Max played a 60+ immigrant straight off the boat (having that in common with tens of thousands of new arrivals to post-WW1 New York City), deeply frustrated by this strange new land. Inhabiting his blustery characters with subtlety and nuance, Davidson played numerous supporting roles with Mabel Normand and other headliners at the Hal Roach Studio.
In Max' very funny starring series of two-reelers for Roach, produced in 1927-1929, he's even more vexed, as patriarch "Papa Ginsberg" by his unendingly goofy family.
The San Francisco Silent Film Fest showed a 35mm restored print from UCLA Film And Television Archive of THE BOY FRIEND (1929) as part of last Saturday's Hal Roach Studio tribute. Since it is both timelessly wacky and the least "ethnic" Davidson comedy I've seen (I didn't catch a single joke about his heritage in the entire film, and that's fairly rare for 1920's-era humor), this will be the one that gets revived and perhaps chosen for DVD release. The premise - not wanting their young daughter to get married anytime soon, the Davidsons act loony when the boyfriend visits - is simple, and brilliantly realized by Max and co-star Fay Holderness.
Why are we even talking about Max Davidson? First, unlike a lot of other comedians who depended on stereotype schtick, he was a most talented actor, very funny, fully capable of transcending the limitations of these roles. Secondly, in a brief stretch between history-making stints creating the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, Leo McCarey contributed inspired direction and writing to the Davidson series. THE BOYFRIEND and the devastatingly funny PASS THE GRAVY (1928) stand out as unrelentingly hilarious examples of the Roach Studio style.