Thursday, September 27, 2012

Laurel And Hardy Night On Saturday



At 7:00 p.m this Saturday evening, the Historic Bal Theatre, 14808 East 14th Street in San Leandro presents a tribute to favorite laughmakers Mr. Arthur Stanley Jefferson, A.K.A. "Stan Laurel" and "Stanley" Mr. Oliver Norvell Hardy, A.K.A. "Babe" and "Ollie".



The hilarious comedies of Laurel & Hardy, once the toast of every capital and a box office hit in the farthest corners of the globe, have receded somewhat in the age of 4500 cable TV channels - and that's too bad. This is due to both to the spotty availability of their films (the last time Laurel and Hardy comedies were shown regularly on television was over 20 years ago by the American Movie Classics channel) and a culture with the attention span of a gnat on methamphetamines.



This scene from The Boys' 1937 feature Way Out West gets me every time.







Until the recent Laurel And Hardy - The Essential Collection DVD release, their films remained largely out of circulation.



Laurel & Hardy silent comedies, including the hilarious You're Darn' Tootin' and Liberty have been posted on Hulu.



Film & Television Archive has launched an ambitious restoration project devoted to Laurel & Hardy. I have posted the piece on the restoration effort by film historian Leonard Maltin before - and it bears repeating.



Laurel and Hardy, like fellow Hal Roach Studio stalwarts Charley Chase and Leo McCarey, definitely had "song and dance man" in their souls. Here is the charming and funny bit from the Stan n' Babe classic Way Out West that inspired Tilda and the Edinburgh Flash Mob.



Wish I could have been there in Edinburgh for the fun!



Laurel And Hardy: still the best!








quest for truth website
Laurel & Hardy Tribute
Saturday September 29th 7pm
Doors Open at 6:30pm $10
Experience Laurel & Hardy in all their black & white glory!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Three



The real surprises here are the sound films. Langdon, a theater veteran before heading to Hollywood, had a fine voice and had no problem adapting to sound." Phil Hall, Film Threat.




In the midst of a movie industry and U.S. economy that was in full crash-and-burn, comedies with the "Spice Of The Program" logo kept somehow getting produced. Onscreen Educational was cranking 'em out, even if offscreen, the studio's fortunes were plummeting in full Great Depression free fall.



Although many silent movie stars had their difficulties making the transition to sound, Lloyd Hamilton, once his 1927-1928 suspension for working in films ended, did quite well.



Hamilton continued starring in very funny talkie 2-reelers through the early 1931 Educational releases.






One big thing that happened at Educational in 1932 was the comings and goings of various luminaries from silent film comedy.


  • After the studio he headed for 15 years went kaput, Al Christie produced 2-reelers at Educational's Astoria facilities and would until the last "Spice Of The Program" short subjects were produced in 1938.

  • Mack Sennett left for Paramount, where he would produce his last popular short subjects series, starring Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.

  • Hal Roach hired Del Lord, who had been directing the Andy Clyde comedy shorts for Educational, to helm the Taxi Boys series, which were very much in the Sennett style. Some of them (What Price Taxi, Thundering Taxis) starred silent comedy mainstays Billy Bevan and Clyde Cook in talkie versions of such car-crashing 1920's 2-reelers as Super-Huper Dyne Lizzies and Lizzies Of The Field. Del's stay at Roach would be short and he soon moved on to Columbia's comedy shorts department.

  • Another mainstay of Educational and Sennett comedies, ever-grizzled Andy Clyde, would soon join The Three Stooges, Harry Langdon and director/writer Del Lord as "top draft choices" of Jules White's comedy short factory.



    Andy stayed with Columbia for 20 years before finding further success in television as an ubiquitous "old geezer" character actor in The Real McCoys and other shows.



  • Paul Terry's studio in New Rochelle continued cranking out cartoons - TONS of them - for Educational release.



  • Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who kept Educational's comedy shorts program alive by directing (and sometimes writing) scads of them using the nom de plume William Goodrich, got the opportunity to star again in his own series at Vitaphone.

  • Wrapping up a brilliant screen comedy career, Lloyd Hamilton left Educational to star in 2-reelers for director Harry Edwards at Universal in 1931 and then made a few films with Mack Sennett at Paramount. Hamilton's last film, Wedding Belles, was produced in 1934 for poverty row Cavalcade Films.

  • Ham's replacement at Educational: another original, creative and idiosyncratic silent comedy great, Harry Langdon.




Not sharing the disparaging opinion of many historians about Mr. Langdon's sound films, I personally find Harry's 1932-1933 series for Educational, if not on the lofty level of his 1920's feature films (Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, Three's A Crowd), still consistently funny, inventive and charming, with fine work from Harry and perennial foil Vernon Dent throughout.







The other star that emerged at Educational in 1932-1933 was Shirley Temple. Here she is, co-starring in the very enjoyable Andy Clyde comedy Dora's Dunkin' Donuts.



On the negative side, Shirley was also featured in Jack Hays Productions' frequently jaw-droppingly bad Baby Burlesks series. In her 1988 autobiography, the actress describes the Baby Burlesks as "a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence" - and also called the films "the best things I ever did".

While Shirley is, as usual, likeable, charming and a skilled actress beyond her years, the idea of presenting spoofs of grownup motion picture genres with an otherwise staggeringly untalented juvenile cast (in diapers, no less) backfires - boy, does it backfire. She's great - and everyone else just stumbles around and gawks at the camera. As seen in the following Baby Burlesks sendup of What Price Glory, the films get laughs more as a "train wreck" embarrassment than from actual humor.



Sometimes, as in Polly Tix In Washington, the Baby Burlesk comedies achieve a certain quality that used to be termed "high camp". Others are just creepy. The worst ones, such as Kid N' Africa, are so incredibly bad as to make the ultra low-budget Mickey McGuire series starring Joe Yule (A.K.A. Mickey Rooney) look like Gone With The Wind.



Educational, figuring Shirley wasn't quite cute enough, produced Poppin' The Cork, a 30 minute musical short celebrating what would be the repeal of the Volstead Act, starring the adorable Milton Berle!



Now, there is a whole other story here - the epic 1932-1933 collapse of Educational Pictures - that I will not delve into, since University Of Toronto professor Rob King has done just that in his abstract The Spice Of The Program: Educational Comedies, Early Sound Slapstick and The Small Town Audience, tackling the story in gory detail.



Richard M. Roberts also penned a comprehensive history of Educational Pictures for Classic Images magazine, including a blow-by-blow of the cataclysmic Sono-Art-World-Wide-KBS Productions-Tiffany Studios merger that bankrupted all participants (Mack Sennett, Earle Hammons, Al Christie).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This Sputtering Blog, Again

It never ceases to surprise the living daylights out of me that I've eked out over 600 postings on this sputtering blog. The time has come to admit that forthcoming postings on Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog will take a great deal more writing and research - yes, in the immortal frightened exclamation of Maynard G. Krebs, work!!! - than anticipated, and thus shall be less frequent. In addition, there are pressing issues in your blogmeister's off-blogging life, unfortunately, that may severely curtail the amount of time that can be devoted to this.

Alas, if your heart says write a bunch of stuff about very obscure classic movies, there's no choice. That's what you do. One must write. As this film history business is strictly and entirely a non-paying gig, a labor of love for your blogmeister (who is the personification of what author/lecturer Barbara Sher calls a "scanner" if there ever was one), the point may well come soon enough when there will be no choice but to go on hiatus. I'll do my best to finish the series about Educational Pictures first, however.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Al "Fuzzy" St. John by Paul F. Etcheverry

"He was terrific. Some of the stunts he did are unbelievable. No special effects in silent movies, he is really up that high and falling that hard." Jerry Lewis

"I had the greatest sidekick in westerns. Better than Gabby Hayes, better than Smiley Burnette. Al's career dated back to the old Keystone studios, and he could still do amazing stunt work. He helped choreograph fight scenes, helped other actors with their falls, and during the breaks he would tell wonderful stories about the silent movie days." Buster Crabbe



Born September 10, 1893, comedian, actor and acrobat Al St. John. He starred in dozens of comedy shorts with many studios and later on, as a supporting player in talkies, was the best of all the grizzled B-western sidekicks - after all, did you ever see Gabby Hayes dismount a horse and then do a backflip?



Al's unique ability to execute pure physical comedy with loose-limbed gusto, goofiness and hair-raising stuntman derring-do was only equaled by Al's Comique co-star Buster Keaton and England's triple-jointed king of the music halls, Lupino Lane.



Arguably, the acrobatic trifecta assembled for the Comique series - Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al - was the greatest slapstick comedy lineup to ever work together onscreen.







Here's a 1914 Keystone Comedy co-starring Al with another great from the days of silent era slapstick, comedienne Alice Howell - the wacky redhead who preceded Lucille Ball by three decades, well known in silent comedy for her outrageous reactions and "Q-Tip" hairdo in Cinderella Cinders and other 1920's films.



It's a darn shame that, largely due to vault fires that claimed an incalculable chunk of film history, so many of Al's starring vehicles for Fox, Educational, Warner Brothers, Paramount and other studios remain rare and difficult to see.







Norwegian film researcher Annichen Skaren - who is writing a biography of Al - has done comedy fans and silent film buffs the favor of posting a fair amount of his surviving work on YouTube.





What's notable about Al, both in his slapstick comedy and later B-western incarnations, is how he repeatedly:
  1. Makes something out of nothing - A.K.A. low-budget be damned, let's do it!
  2. Brings out the unusual and surreal qualities out in any situation, no matter how humdrum. That skill was very likely taught to him by his talented uncle, Mack Sennett Studio star and writer-director Roscoe Arbuckle.




Case in point: the following early talkies Al starred in for Educational, Pathé and Paramount, respectively.



The Educational 1-reeler Western Knights was directed by Stephen Roberts - yes, indeedy, the same Stephen Roberts who directed the ultra-racy Miriam Hopkins vehicle The Story Of Temple Drake just a couple of years later.



In Two Fresh Eggs, clearly a Grade-Z production even in the low budget world of comedy shorts, Al is teamed with one of Vitagraph's principal silent era comedy stars, Jimmy Aubrey. It appears that the two comedians essentially shot some cheap wraparounds to support some even cheaper and unabashedly cheesy musical production numbers (presumably cutting room floor footage) from 1928-1929. Enjoy how Al, in this undistinguished 2-reeler, not only works harmoniously with the perpetually over-the-top Aubrey, but manages to totally steal the film in the process.



The comedy of Al St. John is also covered in the new book by film historian Anthony Balducci, Eighteen Comedians Of Silent Film and will be turning up from time to time in the TCM Mack Sennett retrospective this month.



Historian, author and comedy aficionado par excellence James L. Neibaur said it best: "Mack Sennett often made use of his many talents, from his ability to take amazing pratfalls to his prowess at playing any character. From large parts to small, Al St. John can be found as a strong protagonist, a frightened weakling, a romantic hero, a wily villain, a sneaky rival, or merely a slapstick presence in the background to bolster a scene. His wiry, limber body, his muscular strength, and his expressive facial manner were all perfect for the type of comics Sennett made the most use of, so Al worked regularly during his Keystone tenure. Al branched off as a solo artist, first at Paramount and then Warner Brothers before settling for a long period with Fox studios. What we can see from the existing examples is how Al continued to exhibit his versatility as a comic actor, how he continued to perform amazing stunts, and the impressive fact that he began exploring writing and directing, adding an auteurist approach to his work. Much of Al St. John's best work is among the maddeningly lost films of the silent screen, disallowing a full and complete assessment of his contribution to screen comedy."



And, until one can catch up on the TCM broadcasts via trusty DVR, here's Al in Dynamite Doggie and Out Of Place.





To the likes of Al, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle and many more who quite literally risked their lives for the perfect sight gag, there aren't enough thanks. We're still laughing our you-know-whats off nearly a century later.



Thursday, September 06, 2012

Turner Classic Movies Salutes Mack Sennett



Every Thursday night in September, Turner Classic Movies will present unfettered, unrepentant and wacky movie mayhem produced by the silent era's King Of Comedy, Mr. Mack Sennett, whose studio introduced such icons as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Carole Lombard - among a dizzying roster of comedians, actors and actresses - to the moviegoing world.



Paul E. Gierucki, Brittany Valente and Cine Museum have been hard at work on the restorations of these classic comedies. Here's a short bio of Sennett as well as TCM's Thursday night schedule for September.



My favorite Sennetts tend to either star the brilliant, original and fearless Harry Langdon (love him in both silents and talkies) or be directed by comic genius Del Lord, later the mastermind behind the funniest Three Stooges shorts. In particular, Lord's films starring cross-eyed yet pokerfaced Ben Turpin as a sexy romantic lead a la Rudolph Valentino get me on the floor every time! And the other funmakers from the Sennett Studio - "Madcap Mabel" Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, The Keystone Kops, Alice Howell, Raymond Griffith, Al St John, Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, not to mention such supporting players who subsequently became stars elsewhere as Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Edgar Kennedy - are not too shabby, either! Like Mack, they deserve all the credit in the world for providing belly laughs for multiple generations in multiple epochs and countries across the globe!

For more info on Mack and his 20+ years of big screen fun, check out film historian Brent Walker's epic, painstakingly researched and very entertaining book, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Two


Lloyd Hamilton and Mermaid Comedies producer/director/writer Jack White


One wonders just how Earle W. Hammons' Educational Pictures transitioned from riding high in the 1920's by distributing Otto Messmer's internationally popular Felix The Cat cartoons, classic silent comedies (many directed by the incredibly, mind-numbingly prolific Norman Taurog) starring Lloyd Hamilton, Al St. John, Lupino Lane, Larry Semon and Charley Bowers to a largely different roster and alarmingly low budget films in the 1930's.



Let's start with what happened to the studio's headliners. In 1923-1924, the principal star of Educational's Mermaid Comedies, silent comedy's favorite sourpuss, Lloyd Hamilton, attempted to branch out from his popular and acclaimed series of short subjects by starring in two feature length films.



One, A Self-Made Failure, directed by the ubiquitous William Beaudine, is a lost film. His Darker Self, originally titled Black And White, was designed by D.W. Griffith as a vehicle for stage star Al Jolson. When Jolson abruptly quit the project, Griffith asked Hamilton to replace him in the starring blackface role.



This was a bad career move, very bad idea and by all accounts - and if what footage exists is any indication - an even worse film.



After Hamilton returned to comedy shorts in 1926 and starred in such classics as Move Along, he was banned from making films for the entire 1928-1929 season. How? Hamilton and character actor Johnny Sinclair happened to be present when a certain barroom brawl took place in which pugilist Eddie Diggins was killed. Hamilton wasn't responsible for the stabbing death of Diggins, but his presence at the drunken donnybrook was enough to get him a one year ban from films.



The suspension was neither good for Educational nor the gifted yet booze-soaked comedian. At one point, Hamilton ended up homeless. The ban meant that an excellent opportunity to hit the ground running in a smooth transition to talkies was lost - and Hamilton's voice fitted his world-weary yet shabby genteel characterization to a T.

Al St. John?


Before re-inventing himself with panache as prolific western sidekick Fuzzy Q. Jones, Al continued to star in Mermaid Comedies, some directed by Stephen Roberts (later known for the ultra-racy pre-Code melodrama The Story Of Temple Drake) and moved into talkies without a hitch in Educational's Cameo Comedies series, many helmed by Roscoe "William Goodrich" Arbuckle. Even in the most threadbare of low budget 1-reelers, Al, ever the pro's pro, gets laughs.

Lupino Lane?



Only equaled by St. John and Buster Keaton as an acrobatic and gymnastic comedian-athlete, Lane, also a pro's pro, starred in his last U.S. comedy short subjects, including a few early talkies, in 1929.



After plum supporting roles in the musicals The Love Parade and Bride Of The Regiment, this brilliant physical comic appeared in one of the all-time bombs, Golden Dawn.



This early talkie musical was a golden turkey of golden turkeys, in spite of some very funny and spirited performances by Lane, Marion "Peanuts" Byron and Lee Moran.



Following the release of this 1930 stinker, Lane did what any reasonable actor would do, flee the U.S.  and return to the United Kingdom!



There, he would become an enormous star of the stage and enjoy renewed prestige as one of England's premier show business icons! Lupino Lane became the mainstay of the musical comedy smash Me And My Girl.



Larry Semon, the uncrowned king of prop comedy and elaborate sight gags, early 1920's style and key predecessor of "Three Stooges" style slapstick? Died in 1928. Although Semon's career had taken quite a bad turn since his heydey as the very popular star of lightning-paced, sight gag-filled Vitagraph shorts, his success in latter 1920's character roles (especially in Josef von Sternberg's gangster flick, Underworld) pointed towards a comeback. Unfortunately for Larry, a young man (39) at the time of his passing - and film history - that second act in sound films as a director, character actor, storyboard artist, animator, scenarist or gagman didn't happen.

The great stop-motion animator and reluctant 2-reeler star Charley Bowers?



Alas, the Bowers Comedies series, delighting the Dadaist/Surrealist movement in Paris while dumbfounding small-town movie audiences worldwide, officially ended in 1928 - and not without leaving some amazing imagery behind.



Bowers continued to sporadically function as an independent producer with such remarkable stop-motion films as the following early talkie, It's A Bird.



Bowers subsequently joined the story department of the Walter Lantz studio and produced occasional strikingly imaginative and bizarre stop-motion cartoons, but did not appear on-camera again.

So, as the 1920's ended, most of the Educational Pictures comedy stars had moved on - and the essential alliances also changed.



At the beginning of the decade, Hammons cut a deal to distribute the Al Christie Studio's "Torchy" series starring Johnny Hines around the same time he contracted with Jack White. Christie, who had supplied tons of comedy films to Educational Film Exchange, signed a three-year deal with Paramount starting with the 1926-1927 season.



Educational responded to the loss of the Al Christie Studio and its prolific short subjects production units by contracting with Mack Sennett.



Sennett's Fun Factory continued cranking out 2-reelers, first for Educational release, then later for Paramount. The best known Sennett talkies feature Andy Clyde and W.C. Fields. Other "Mack Sennett Star Comedies" include the last appearances of a rather haggard and spent looking Lloyd Hamilton, as well as comedienne Marjorie Beebe (who Lucille Ball must have been aware of).



Even cartoons were affected; Felix The Cat was lost to Jacques Kopstein and Copley Pictures - and Paul Terry's Terrytoons were lined up as the replacement.



We'll get into what the heck happened to Educational when the movie business made the painful transition between silents and talkies and the 1930's progressed in Part Three.