Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stooges On Saturday, Nappy On Sunday!

This is a good weekend for classic movie mavens who reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California, U.S.A.

Abel Gance's Napoleon is on its second (and last) weekend of shows presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at Oakland's grande palace, the Paramount. Here's one of this blog's favorite film historians and a driving force behind the latest restoration, author/filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, telling more about the 1927 big screen epic.



Napoleon, a spectacular to make everyone else's spectaculars look like Ham & Bud one-reelers, is routinely blowing 2012 audiences away. It makes even the most jaded, bleary-eyed, dyed-in-the-wool film buffs speechless (ouch)- don't miss it if you can afford the ticket!

Now, folks, if it's post-epic laughs you need, Bay Area Film Events will deliver them in quantity with Saturday night's Stoogemania show at the Bal Theatre.



Yours truly, Psychotronic Paul, will be among the judges for the "Dance Like A Stooge" contest.Contestants: do yourselves a favor and, first and foremost, study Loco Boy Makes Good and Gents Without Cents as many consecutive times as a crazed fanboy or fangirl obsessing over a Star Trek or Star Wars flick.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Classic Movie Event Of The Year - Maybe The Decade



Abel Gance's mega-epic to end all mega-epics, Napoleon, premieres today at Oakland's Paramount Theatre. Big screen spectacular, baby!

For more info regarding the 1927 movie masterpiece, check out the San Francisco Silent Film Festival web page. See you at the Paramount!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just Released On DVD: UPA's Jolly Frolics by Paul F. Etcheverry


Thanks to Turner Classic Movies and animation expert Jerry Beck, the classic cartoons of the UPA studio have been released on DVD in a compilation titled The Jolly Frolics Collection.






UPA? Who? Well, UPA (a.k.a. United Productions Of America were the studio that was absolute the rage in animation in the 1950's.



UPA changed the look, feel, content and artistic mission of animation. In some respects, the studio's effect on animation could be compared to how Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk set the music world on its collective ear in the latter 1940's.

Celebrated in Amid Amidi's excellent book Cartoon Modern, the UPA studio was perennially in the Oscar hunt, and unlike anyone else in the business (other than Disney), actually received critical acclaim. UPA set the stage for the international explosion of indie animation in the decades that followed and would also be the only cartoon studio to darn near get shut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

UPA's films were distributed by Columbia Pictures, formerly associated with the Charles Mintz and Screen Gems studios - arguably the most maligned of all animation houses (even more than New York's Terrytoons, Van Beuren and Famous Studios), especially in comparison to Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM.






Although the talented animators at both Mintz and Screen Gems often blazed a creative, off-kilter and at times refreshingly original (and disturbing) path through Cartoonland, they were, without a doubt, B-studios.







The Charles Mintz Studio also had the ignominious fate of being the producer distributing new cartoons through Harry Cohn's organization, after the Walt Disney Studio had given Columbia Pictures the Silly Symphonies, as well as the beloved Mickey Mouse cartoons.








So Columbia Pictures went from Disney to the darker, Fleischer-like sensibility of the Mintz Studio's Krazy Kat and Scrappy.


As much as diehard cartoon aficionados enjoy Dick Huemer's way-out animation, Art Davis' top-notch draftsmanship, Sid Marcus' seriously bent sense of humor and the New York (as opposed to sunny California) vibe that permeates the early 1930's Scrappy cartoons, for Columbia Pictures, this change was tantamount to transitioning from MGM to Monogram or PRC.



So by the time UPA got its chance to produce cartoons for Columbia release, Harry Cohn's studio had to be dying for even the slightest, most miniscule hint of prestige when it came to animated short subjects.




On January 4, 1940, Charles Mintz died, and in 1941, the much maligned studio was shut down. Frank Tashlin took over as the new producer at the rechristened Screen Gems Studio and quite literally hired his staff off the picket line of the Disney Studio's 1941 strike.

Now the Screen Gems Studio was chock full of enthusiastic young ex-Disney artists, none interested in doing the same old crap. Among them were three movers and shakers: Dave Hilberman, Zack Schwartz and John Hubley.

Their goal: drastically change the look and content of animated cartoons. Which they did, emphatically, in a series of entertainingly strange, way out in left field Screen Gems cartoons filled with warped originality - the surreal Columbia Phantasy The Vitamin G-Man, the Color Rhapsody Professor Small And Mr. Tall and Milt Gross' anti-Hitler cartoon, He Can't Make It Stick.




The 2-dimensional, abstract graphics in Professor Small And Mr. Tall are the antithesis of Disney's 3-dimensionality, while the truly bizarre storyline is clearly an attempt to break with the slapstick/sight gag tradition.



Professor Small and Mr. Tall by Columbia-Pictures

In collaboration with innovative designers Gene Fleury, Bernice Polifka and John McGrew, the Warners cartoon crew led by Chuck Jones was also experimenting with bold new approaches to graphic design and humor in 1942-1943. Especially notable: the masterful and hilarious classic cartoon The Dover Boys At Pimento University.



John Hubley and his Screen Gems crew saw The Dover Boys and produced their own sendup of 1890's morality tales, the Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoon The Rocky Road To Ruin. While it isn't the flat-out brilliant piece of work that Jones' masterpiece is, I like this film's proto-UPA graphic design and snide, bilious, satiric point of view. The two cartoons only share an underlying premise and ultra-droll voice artist/storyman John McLeish, who wrote this and many other Screen Gems cartoons in 1943-1944. Otherwise, they're completely different in conception and execution.



Bear in mind, the last thing this Screen Gems crew wanted to do was to make something remotely resembling the comedy style and approach of a Disney, Tex Avery or Warner Bros. cartoon. The humor in The Rocky Road To Ruin has more in common what the Jay Ward Studio and especially Pantomime Pictures (producers of the very funny Roger Ramjet series) would develop in the 1950's and 1960's than anything made in the 1940's. Comparing this to a Warner Brothers cartoon, to a significant degree, is missing the point altogether.





Simultaneously with the crew making cartoons at Screen Gems, Jones continued to push the new approach even further towards what would become UPA's non-representational graphic style. The following 1943 Bugs Bunny opus, Waikiki Wabbit, like The Rocky Road To Ruin, has "cartoon modern" graphic design from start to finish.



Meanwhile, the same time as the aforementioned Warner Brothers and Screen Gems studios were being made, the artists who made those cartoons were moonlighting to produce Hell-Bent For Election, a fascinating and graphically advanced (especially at 7:00 - 8:30) propaganda piece on behalf of FDR's 1944 bid for another White House term. Directed by Chuck Jones and designed by Schwartz, it was the first production of Industrial Films, a new company formed by Hilberman, Schwartz and Hubley, and represented the changing of the guard.



They followed this up with training films for the WW2 effort that strived for new and different approaches to graphic design and animation.



Industrial Films would be renamed UPA, director/animator Robert "Bobe" Cannon and designer Paul Julian came on board, and with animators Ben Washam and Ken Harris (from Chuck Jones' crew at WB), produced the following brilliant and forward-thinking film, Brotherhood Of Man, on the topic of race relations. The character designs are reminiscent of Saul Steinberg.



When the Screen Gems Studio closed after a record of increasingly bizarre and incoherent product in 1946, UPA received an opportunity to get into theatrical cartoons. Columbia demanded that they do three films with the studio's resident stars, originally created for Tashlin's 1941 Color Rhapsody cartoon, The Fox And The Grapes: the combative, yet often damn funny Fox & Crow.





Hubley grudgingly agreed and UPA produced the last three Fox & Crow cartoons: Robin Hoodlum, Magic Fluke and Punchy DeLeon.



Hubley was not at all pleased with the requirement to make three Fox & Crow extravaganzas, and it wasn't the complete break with the animation styles of Disney and Warner Brothers he desired, but the crew produced three excellent cartoons, all very different from anyone else's in the industry.





The Magic Fluke in particular features inventive staging by Hubley and adds new wrinkles in the cartoon team's ever-dysfunctional relationship.



What Hubley really wanted to do at UPA, besides change the world, was create new characters that were totally different from the "funny animal" tradition of animation and comic books. Hubley got his shot with the first Jolly Frolic, starring a certain cantankerous, bullheaded, near-blind old bastard named Magoo.



Magoo's debut, Ragtime Bear, hit it out of the park. Its blend of Hubley's directorial facility/UPA's graphic design with the comic genius of Jim Backus created something new, different, unlike both Disney and Warners - and hilarious.





While the Mr. Magoo cartoons were hugely successful, leading to a long-running series (most of them helmed by Pete Burness), the ascension of veteran animator Robert "Bobe" Cannon to director of the Jolly Frolics cartoons enabled UPA to complete the break from what studio writer Bill Scott termed "Disney cute" and "Warner Bros. rowdyism".



The breakthrough cartoon was Bobe's paean to the outsider, Gerald McBoingBoing. It's a brilliant piece of work with striking graphic design and a creative use of color (by Jules Engel) that tells the story very effectively. It is totally NOT 3-D in look, and yet you find yourself sympathizing with the plight of Gerald, the kid who can only speak in sound effects. Cannon plays the Dr. Seuss storyline straight - there are no "gags" per se - and with good reason: throughout his career directing for UPA, Bobe's m.o. was to steer clear of conflict and absolutely NOT aim for laughs.



John Hubley left UPA in a high design, high concept blaze of glory with his last tour-de-force, Rooty Toot Toot, the apogee and summation of everything I love about UPA cartoons, in humor, content, animation style and graphic design.



It was a brief blaze of glory. The House Un-American Activities Committee, seeking to destroy more lives and careers in their fervent search for unionists and any poor bastards who momentarily skimmed through The Daily Worker poolside at Malibu or Beverly Hills, targeted UPA. John Hubley and writer Phil Eastman got thrown to the wolves. While this eventually led to Hubley's successful rebirth as an independent producer outside the studio system and Eastman's as an award-winning author of children's books, the effect of losing two guys who were the heart of the studio proved devastating.

While Bobe Cannon continued making inventive Jolly Frolics cartoons in collaboration with designer Thornton Hee (a.k.a. T. Hee) and entertaining, funny entries in the Magoo series would be produced by directors Pete Burness and Bill Hurtz, the studio's time on the cutting edge had passed. The UPA cartoons were still consistently pretty wonderful, but no longer boldly innovative. That mantle passed from the theatrical cartoon production crews to UPA's New York wing, led by director Gene Deitch, which continued blazing new trails in animation via educational films and commercials.







Meanwhile, the guy who directed the first UPA theatrical cartoon, John Hubley, formed Storyboard Pictures with his wife Faith - and would continue pushing the envelope and inspiring independent animators around the world up to his death at 62 in 1977.



Since the 1950's, the UPA cartoons have dropped off the map, including the later films produced in the early 1960's (ironically by ex-WB icons Chuck Jones and Abe Levitow). Even the 1960's made-for-television cartoons by UPA have not aired in many years. It has been up to animation aficionados, film historians and private collectors to keep the interest in UPA alive.

Adam Abraham has gone a long way to carry that torch to young animation enthusiasts with his new book about the studio, When Magoo Flew: The Rise And Fall Of Animation Studio UPA.

Monday, March 19, 2012

This Thursday Night: Oddball Films Presents Save KUSF benefit featuring Ralph Carney and Melodious Animations

"Ralph's great...He's guided by some other source of information. He's like a broken toy that works better than before it was broken." Tom Waits



Stephen Parr's archive, Oddball Films on 275 Capp (between 17th and 18th Streets) hosts a benefit for KUSF at 8:00 p.m. this Thursday night. There will be cool animation and a performance by jazz multi-instrumentalist and friend of this blog (and of classic movies in general) Ralph Carney on the Cinestage.





Mr. Carney has spent the better part of the last three decades criss-crossing the world, on stage and in studios with the likes of Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the B-52s and Elvis Costello, to name only a few (and he also contributed his distinctive sonic inspiration to several programs of surreal big screen fun curated by yours truly, blogmeister Psychotronic Paul).

Complementing Ralph and the band's performance will a wonderful and whimsical selection of jazzy cartoons from the Oddball Films collection, including:



The 1932 Fleischer Studio classic Minnie The Moocher, featuring Betty Boop, Bimbo and the music of Cab Calloway and His Orchestra

Legendary animators Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s vibrant Begone Dull Care, featuring the equally lively Art Tatum-esque sounds of the Oscar Peterson Trio

Cat’s Cradle, a.k.a. Au bout du fil by National Film Board Of Canada animator Paul Driessen, among the principal artists who created the ultra-psychedelic visual stylings of Yellow Submarine



Special benefit admission pricing will be $10 - $15 (sliding scale)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tomorrow Night: The Psychotronix Film Festival Returns To Foothill College!



Spring is almost here, so that means it's time for the customary March or April Psychotronix - yet another happy, hallucinatory excursion through the irritated bowels of popular culture!




 We will feature the usual suspects: trailers from B-movies, well-meaning 50's educational films, pretty much anything involving guys in robot and gorilla suits, vintage TV commercials and theatre ads, cartoon rarities, Japanese monster epics, Scopitones, Soundies and other even more obscure musical shorts, silent film clips, etc. In short, a mix that would invariably make the heart of the late Edward D. Wood Jr. go pitty-pat.




The festival is also something of a reaction against all standard rules of film programming. Instead of devoting a screening to one director, one genre or one series, our celluloid concoctions throw a wide variety of films from different places, genres, techniques or time periods together.


As far as content goes, the more obscure, the lower the budget, the more under-the-radar, the better. If we can establish a subject link or a Monty Python-esque visual or verbal link between the segments, great, but this is not absolutely necessary. Or to make a further Monty Python reference, this could be called the "And Now For Something Completely Different" approach to film programming.



Some of our best shows are essentially improvised, with archivist-producers Bob Ekman, Scott Moon and myself creating the program on the fly, responding to audience reaction and choosing films accordingly. We consider the evening a smashing success when the audience starts heckling the feature before the projection lamp goes on.



We are still looking for that version of The Quiet Man co-starring Johnny Rotten, Peter Lawford in drag, Pirro The Clown and The Marquis Chimps 




The KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Room 5015 on the Foothill College campus, Los Altos Hills, CA Showtime: 7:00 PM
Admission $5 benefits KFJC 89.7 

Parking - $3


Thursday, March 08, 2012

This Blog's Favorite Checkered Cap Schlemiel: Lloyd Hamilton

"One of the funniest men in silent pictures." Buster Keaton

I admit to a certain fascination with comedians from the silent and early talkie eras. With the exception of Harold Lloyd, they were not ambitious regular guys who made good. They were sticky wickets and hellraisers who could not be constricted or contained. The truly inspired ones, Buster Keaton in particular, have that indefinable visionary quality that Captain Beefheart termed "sun zoom spark"; almost a century later, their films and inventive ideas are still outside the box, way outside the box.



Arguably, the most brazen combination of comic genius, originality and offscreen rock star recklessness - other than Keaton and Charley Chase - belonged to the guy known as "the comedian's comedian", Lloyd Vernon Hamilton (1891-1935), a.k.a. "Ham". Nearly 80 years after his death in January 1935, Mr. Hamilton's original onscreen persona - cranky, quirky, dangerous - manages to command our short 21st century attention spans and funny bones.



Known for his incessantly put-upon sad sack characterization, Mr. Hamilton ranks high on my short list of all-time favorite screen comics. Yet, if not for such groundbreaking books as Leonard Maltin's The Great Movie Comedians and Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns (which reviews Ham's classic 1926 short Move Along in detail), he may well have entirely slipped through the cracks and not even merited a momentary mention in the film history books.

Hamilton first rose to fame by starring as part of a knockabout team with diminutive Bud Duncan in the Kalem Studio's 1914-1917 Ham & Bud series. The m.o. of these rude n' crude one-reelers - and a "louder faster shorter" trend in screen comedy that corresponded with the WW1 years - is "incredibly bad taste".



Even well into Lloyd Hamilton's later solo career, but especially with the Ham & Bud series, the viewer's never quite sure if he is merely aiming for sheer surreal shock value or presenting a "sick sick sick" National Lampoon-ish parody of execrable taste.



Some Ham & Bud comedies are unrelentingly horrendous, absolutely designed to offend, while others serve up the team's totally indefensible, beyond all redemption behavior with a certain "wink wink nudge nudge" quality that equals what film historian Richard M. Roberts described as "crass with panache".



So here are Ham & Bud, directed by Marshall "Mickey" Neilan. Simply horrid or a surreal guilty pleasure? You be the judge.





After the Kalem series ended, Lloyd moved on to work in the infamous Henry "Suicide" Lehrman's fast and furious Fox Sunshine comedies and subsequently develop a new screen characterization for a starring series in 1920.



On the surface, his character resembled an overgrown boy but was actually more than a bit of a rake and a scoundrel, as well as a "poor sap" schlemiel who always carried himself as a shabby-genteel dandy. Hamilton developed his character, who got even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, with the assistance of directors Lehrman, Jack White and Norman Taurog.



Ham's dark sensibility and refreshingly post-modern cynical viewpoint would have, without a doubt, struck a responsive chord with historians and cineastes decades later - if his films actually existed!



A principal reason for Ham's relative obscurity, by comparison to his contemporaries is straightforward: the very low survivability rate of his work, due to a 1937 vault fire that singlehandedly wiped out the 35mm nitrate negatives of his 1920's Fox and Educational series. Only Universal Pictures comedienne Alice Howell fared worse in terms of the utter scarcity of surviving screen comedy work.



A few of Hamilton's starring vehicles have surfaced. Ham's character is perpetually broke and down on his luck, but fundamentally sympathetic. While not heroic in the same sense as Harold Lloyd fighting off bad guys, or Buster Keaton tackling the elements and the insurmountable, this "good guy just trying to get by" framework provides a solid foundation for the comedy.

Here's Ham, the checkered cap schlub of schlubs, in Jonah Jones, which also features the excellent comedienne and character actress Babe London. He carries the "everything happens to me" concept to brilliant and funny extremes, quite different from any other comedian before or since. The splendid musical score is by film historian-accompanist Ben Model.



Offscreen, Hamilton was as dogged by bad decisions, bad fortune, bad whisky and downright bad ju-ju as his checkered cap "Poor Soul" character was born under a bad sign onscreen.

The worst career decision, and very likely the one which got Ham permanently excluded from subsequent histories of film comedy, was to star in His Darker Self, A.K.A. Black Or White, originally crafted by D.W. Griffith as a blackface vehicle for Al Jolson. Griffith pondered replacing Jolson with Eddie Cantor, but settled on Lloyd Hamilton. The storyline and concept were not overhauled top-to-bottom to fit Hamilton's very specific characterization and the new star (as was the case with both of his First National features) had zero creative control over the project. Griffith abandoned the project shortly after Hamilton was signed. The word fiasco would be quite the understatement.

Hamilton's second feature, A Self Made Failure, is a lost film. The ubiquitous William Beaudine directed and co-stars included Patsy Ruth Miller, child actor Ben Alexander (yes, that's right - the same guy from the 1950's version of Dragnet) and Sennett studio "canine comedienne" Cameo The Dog.



Hamilton's comment on the film, "it was three reels too many." The film is gone, but the finished script does exist and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Ham's characterization and its nuances - he's dumb rather than sly and crafty.



One can only conjecture without a finished film available for viewing, but it appears, from what's left of the continuity and numerous surviving stills, that this was an effort to do comedy + pathos much along the lines of Chaplin's The Kid. This does not sound like the right call, given Hamilton's outwardly prissy yet cranky and rakish characterization.



Of course, a principal reason for Ham remaining highly regarded, but seldom ranked by latter-day film historians above the second tier, was that he, like fellow performer-gagman-director (and drinking buddy) Charley Chase, did not make the transition from starring in shorts to headlining a series of successful feature comedies. Hamilton's starring short subjects, however, were frequently brilliant and right up there with Chaplin and Keaton in sheer inventiveness.



After the two unsuccessful feature films, Hamilton returned to Educational Pictures. While the fact that he didn't ascend to stardom in feature length comedies alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd couldn't have had a tempering effect on Hamilton's hard-partying lifestyle, he continued starring in and writing comedy shorts that were consistently original, funny and imaginative into the early sound era.



Arguably, the most important element that separates Ham from Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon is that he does periodically tweak with his characterization. He plays an overgrown mama's boy in some films, while in others portrays an "always on the lam" fellow who's a bit of a scoundrel and not above overt dishonesty. The mama's boy character headlines the following short subject from the silent comedy DVD set Accidentally Preserved Volume 2.



This writer feels strongly that the more rakish and conniving Hamilton's character is, the funnier he is.



On the other hand, the bittersweet 1926 comedy short, Move Along, not only both epitomizes Hamilton's wonderfully caustic vision, but also makes his "one step ahead of the gendarmes" persona actually a pretty nice guy - albeit not above a tiny bit of skullduggery for the right reasons.



Such beautifully conceived short subjects as Move Along refute the inaccurate and seldom challenged conventional wisdom that "only feature films count".



Generally, silent movie comedians who only headlined several features that tanked (Larry Semon), whose films either range from hard-to-find to lost (Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Raymond Griffith) or were not produced in the U.S. (Max Linder) get the "sorry, bud - you're not The Big Three and no icon to boot" treatment all these decades later.



Although the following clips from his guest shot on The Show Of Shows and an appearance in a Hollywood On Parade short demonstrate that Lloyd adapted quite well to sound, personal problems and poor health overwhelmed him as the 1930's progressed.





The sole screen comedian working with an anti-hero characterization even remotely similar to Hamilton, W.C. Fields, did successfully switch from shorts to features, after a decade of trying, and make a film, "It's A Gift", that, with tweaks, could absolutely be a Lloyd Hamilton starring vehicle. Conversely, when W.C. quit making the Mack Sennett Star Comedy series, the last film on the contract, Two Many Highballs, was completed with a haggard-looking Ham as the star - and would later be remade by scenarist Clyde Bruckman as the 1935 Fields classic Man On The Flying Trapeze. It's a good film and decent swan song, but needed to be rewritten to fit Lloyd's characterization.

After much tragedy in his life and a protracted, losing battle with alcoholism, Hamilton died young and thus totally missed out on both the 1940's re-casting of longtime comedy veterans by Preston Sturges at Paramount and the re-discovery of silent movies in the 1950's and 1960's via television and the silent comedy compilation features by Robert Youngson (The Golden Age Of Comedy, When Comedy Was King, 30 Years Of Fun, Days Of Thrills And Laughter, Laurel & Hardy's Laughing 20's).

As fate would have it, more "Ham & Bud" one-reelers survive than Hamilton solo vehicles. Both "Ham & Bud" extravaganzas and later Hamilton solo vehicles are available on DVD via sets from Manchester silent comedy restoration specialists Looser Than Loose and Grapevine Video. I found the few "Lloyd Hamilton Talking Comedies" I've viewed on these DVD sets quite funny, but they are generally, like his silents, also rare and difficult to see.



History aficionados, classic comedy and silent movie fans note: Anthony Balducci, author of The Funny Parts: A History Of Film Comedy Routines And Gags, penned a compelling and well-researched biography of Lloyd Hamilton, which is available via Amazon.




A few years after Lloyd Hamilton's death, Jackie Gleason created a silent comedy tribute character, The Poor Soul, who wears the same outfit as Ham, right down to the checkered cap. While The Poor Soul's snakebit "everything happens to me" m.o. is dead-on Hamilton, the characterization owes as much or more to baby faced wide-eyed innocents Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel - and even more to Gleason's distinctive timing. It appears that Jackie clearly made a point of paying tribute to the "checkered cap" persona without appropriating Ham's very specific mannerisms and sourpuss persona.



Although Ham got his star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, there still, frankly, isn't tons of information on him besides Anthony Balducci's book, but he does get mentioned on the Silent Comedians and Silent Comedy Mafia discussion boards, as well as occasionally on Nitrateville.


R.I.P. Silent Comedy's Poor Soul - you were one of a kind.