Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Congrats To The 2012 San Francisco Giants!


Congratulations to the 2012 San Francisco Giants, who swept the heretofore mighty Detroit Tigers to earn their second championship in three years.



The ceremonial parade down Market Street takes place at 11:00 A.M. Pacific Standard Time.



While there are many people who don't go for professional sports in any way shape or form, IMHO, even the momentary diversion from daily life problems one's favorite team and game can provide is a wonderful thing.



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New On DVD: Comedy Kings Roscoe And Shemp!



A 2-DVD set, The Vitaphone Comedy Collection Vol. 1 — Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle/Shemp Howard (1932-1934) has been released by Warner Archive.



To paraphrase the blurb from the new releases section of the Warner Archive website:

"Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle made his triumphant return to comedy in the six sparkling Vitaphone shorts he headlines in this collection. While Fatty’s return was tragically cut short by his untimely passing in June 1933, another talent, sporting the unforgettable mug of Shemp Howard, was on the rise. In this collection you’ll witness Shemp’s path from bit player to chief second banana in the span of two short years."

Among the premier comedian-gag writer-directors of silent pictures, as well as the mentor of Buster Keaton, Mr. Arbuckle managed to recapture the spirit and fun of his Keystone and Comique comedies quite well in these Vitaphone talkies.



Here's a clip from In The Dough. The bad guys are, indeed, more than vaguely familiar to classic movie and comedy fans!



A few players - gravel-voiced Lionel Stander, ultra-goofy Ben Blue, underrated Gus Shy and former Mack Sennett Studio stock company mainstay Harry Gribbon - turn up over and over in these Vitaphone "Big V" comedy shorts, all shot in Depression-era Brooklyn. Gribbon was teamed with Shemp in several Vitaphones. I'm disappointed that none of the Big V Comedies co-starring Shemp and Daphne Pollard are on this 2-DVD set, but assume they'll be on Volume 2.

Film history note: Art Trouble, one of the Vitaphones starring Shemp and Harry Gribbon on this set, is also noteworthy as Jimmy Stewart's film debut!

The lineup is as follows:

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

How've You Bean!
Hey, Pop!
Buzzin' Around!
Tomalio
Close Relations (w/Shemp)
In The Dough (w/Shemp)


Shemp Howard

Paul Revere, Jr. (w/ Gus Shy)
Salt Water Daffy (w/ Jack Haley)
How D'Ya Like That? (w/ George Givot)
I Scream (w/ Gus Shy)
The Wrong, Wrong, Trail
Here Comes Flossie (w/ Ben Blue)
Pugs And Kisses
Mushrooms (w/ Harry Gribbon)
Pure Feud (w/ Edgar Bergen)
Corn On The Cop (w/ Harry Gribbon)
Ramblin' Round Radio Row (w/ George Jessel and Bonnie Poe)
Very Close Veins (w/ Ben Blue)
Art Trouble (w/ Harry Gribbon)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not The Worst Comedy Teams Ever



All this talk of bad comedy teams - Mitchell & Durant, Noonan & Marshall, Sacco & Vanzetti - gets me realizing that boy, do we all need laughs (and plenty of 'em) and also pondering various vaudeville and movie funmakers who, in my estimation, weren't so bad after all. One example: The Ritz Brothers.



The temptation is to compare The Ritz Brothers to the Marx and Howard boys and find them wanting. Don't - their acts are completely different from each other.


 

And besides, I take Mel Brooks' claim that Harry Ritz was the funniest guy onstage ever seriously!







Supporting Mel's assertion: the following Ritz Brothers clips.







In Irving Berlin's On The Avenue, Harry is dressed as Alice Faye (he enters at 4:35).



While characterization is definitely not their strong suit, if regarded as a musical dance act rather than as movie comedians in the same sense that Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Abbott & Costello and Clark & McCullough are, then Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz definitely have their charms.



Here are some darn good caricatures of The Ritz Brothers by the brilliant animators of the Walt Disney Studio.



Bringing to mind the question "if one took a trip through the literary, jazz and rock n' roll worlds and eliminated any artist who met a tragic end, who who you have left?" are the comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough.



Although the team generally is widely disliked by 21st century classic comedy buffs, largely due to both Clark's over-the-top style and Paul McCullough's gruesome suicide in 1936, this blogger finds them quite funny, even in the worst of their existing films for Fox and RKO.



Of course, the guys who spelled comedy for RKO from 1929-1938 were the outrageous, randy and unfailingly cheerful Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey - and among the numerous star cameos in the following 1931 fundraiser short, The Stolen Jools.



And as far as the following Masquers Club short goes, I wonder if anyone, including the intrepid archivists of UCLA, The George Eastman House and The Library Of Congress has seen this since 1935!



Also at RKO, but later on, in the 1940's: Wally Brown and Alan Carney, a surprisingly good low-rent answer to Abbott & Costello.





In such "chills and spills" comedies as Zombies On Broadway, the team were consistently funny .



Unfortunately, Brown & Carney did not get to do a picture at RKO with Orson Welles. That's everyone's loss, including Orson's, who could have definitely used a laugh or two at that time and never did direct a comedy - and who knows, he may well have very much enjoyed the experience.



Not surprisingly, Brown & Carney got some serious competition in the "most lowbrow 1940's comedy team" department from the Columbia Comedy Shorts department. With high hopes to come up with another series as popular as The Three Stooges, producer/director Jules White experimented with all kinds of casting combinations - some good, some dreadful - through the 1930's and 1940's and even into the 1950's. The following 2-reeler, High Blood Pleasure (1945), with the team of Gus Schilling and Richard Lane, is among the better and most mayhem-filled efforts along these lines.





In the latter 1920's, Paramount Pictures teamed Ziegfeld Follies headliner and master juggler W.C. Fields with Mack Sennett Studio knockabout star and all-around schlemiel Chester Conklin. We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog love both comedians without reservation, but cannot fathom what possessed Paramount's grand poobahs to do this. Fields in a silent movie is like a mixed drink without tequila, rum and vodka! It took sound to bring the glorious 100 proof Fields to the silver screen.



I love the ultra-zaniness of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Their success onstage in Helzapoppin' was quite the showbiz phenomenon in the 1930's.



Although the Olsen & Johnson mojo never quite translated 100% to movies or TV (the one existing live episode of All-Star Revue they hosted, unfortunately, bears this out), the team's features, like those of Abbott & Costello, definitely have their moments.





Ole and Chic deserve an esteemed place in the yuckster pantheon for Helzapoppin' and Crazy House alone.





Viewing the "flying O&J" animation gag, it disappoints that an official collaboration between Universal Pictures comedians and animation producer Walter Lantz, at the top of his game in the 1940's, did not happen.



Between memorable stints at the beginning and the end of The Golden Age Of Stoogery, the great comedian Shemp Howard was teamed with various partners.



Among the funniest of Shemp's non-Stooge appearances were the mid-1930's Vitaphone 2-reelers in which he co-starred with diminutive yet zany, ever-feisty Australian comedienne Daphne Pollard. Here's Shemp and Daphne - enjoy how they let 'er rip!



And speaking of let 'er rip, then there were these guys. . .







And two guys who cleverly and shamelessly copied another comedy team to the letter and got sued for it!


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mitchell & Durant - Worst Comedy Team Ever?



Here, submitted for your approval or disapproval, the acrobatic knockabout comedy duo of Frank Mitchell & Jack Durant, playing Senators Danforth and Short in the 1934 Great Depression classic Stand Up And Cheer, a.k.a. The Fox Follies.



Mitchell & Durant's genteel comedy commences after the principal star of the 1934 Fox "revue film", Warner Baxter, leaves the room at 0:23.




Wondering how the hell he ended up in this train wreck after starring in 42nd Street, Baxter might as well say "if you'll excuse me, I have some very important auditions and must leave so the two of you can beat the crap out of each other for no apparent reason."



More memorably, Stand Up And Cheer also includes the feature film debut of the Fox studio's megastar-to-be Shirley Temple.



It says something about your blogmeister - and he has no idea just what - that he finds Mitchell & Durant funny but doesn't laugh at the entire backlog of Adam Sandler's post-SNL work, all of it, not even once.

Whether these guys deserve the "worst comedy team" stigma any more than my personal choice, Tommy Noonan & Peter Marshall or Kalem's brutal WW1 era slapstick stars Ham & Bud is strictly a matter of personal taste . . . or utter lack of it. They make me laugh - and I don't know why, they just do!



Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tonight: Classic SIlent Era Cartoons On TCM



Alas, this blog careens back from Broadway to Dinky Duck yet again.

Tonight at 12am Eastern/9pm Pacific, Turner Classic Movies is doing something utterly unheard of even on the Cartoon Network: devoting an entire evening to animation.



While there will not be any 1950's Terrytoons starring the aforementioned Dinky Duck, the excellent lineup spotlights two feature films by blogmeister favorite the Fleischer Studio, cool stylized 50's animation by UPA, the 1926 Lotte Reineger classic Adventures Of Prince Achmed, as well as hour's worth of silent-era rarities. TCM's grandmaster Robert Osborne and Jerry Beck, author (and dean of animation historians) from Cartoon Brew co-host.

The silent cartoons from the collection of historian Tommy Stathes in tonight's program were produced in New York City between 1907 and 1926. For more, check out the Cartoons On Film page on Facebook.

And, incidentally, if you want to see more animation on TCM, make those cartoon-loving desires known right here.

Ladies And Gentlemen, set your DVRS!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Burt Bacharach Day - Promises Promises



Can one pick a favorite Burt Bacharach song, besides the entire Painted From Memory album, in which intrepid multi-genre sonic explorer Elvis Costello channels his inner Sinatra (and brilliantly)? I can't!

So, in the immortal words of Rod Serling, submitted for your approval, just one dizzying (tempo and key change-packed) favorite by Burt and the late Hal David: the incredible "Promises Promises", tackled by a host of heavy hitter vocalists.



We'll start with the most recent Broadway version. Take it away, Sean Hayes!





And then there's Dionne Warwick, the vocalist synonymous with numerous 1960's pop hits by Burt and Hal. Here she is, nailing that song yet again - and making it look easy - in the studio.



And belting it out on The Ed Sullivan Show.



Bringing this posting to a stirring crescendo, THE MAN, Mr. Broadway himself, the one, the only Jerry Orbach!



Monday, October 15, 2012

107 Years Ago Today: The Debut Of Little Nemo In Slumberland



Today, Google's homepage pays tribute to one of the true innovators of early 20th century comic art, Winsor McCay (1869-1934). McCay was a gifted, feverishly imaginative and insanely prolific artist, as well as the pioneering animator who created Gertie The Dinosaur.



Google has presented a Winsor-style dreamscape - fittingly, as McCay's comic strip Little Nemo In Slumberland was first published on this very day in 1905.



When it comes to pure visual fantasy and psychedelia at its very best, Little Nemo In Slumberland can't be beat - more than a century later.



Thanks, Winsor!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Psychotronic Paul's Quote Of The Day - Plus Sonically Engrossing Music

“Going back to the early King Crimson, the remarkable explosion of the creative impulse in popular music, mainly in rock music, came from these young men who didn’t know what they were doing, yet were able to do it.”

“What has changed in 40 years? It’s very simple. Forty years ago there was a market economy. Today there is a market society. Today, everything, including ethics, has a price.”
Composer, bandleader and guitarist Robert Fripp, from an interview in the UK Financial Times.



And that sadly accurate quote reminds me to post examples of Mr. Fripp's uncompromising and visionary music.





Seems all the incarnations of King Crimson somehow manage to be primal, visceral AND amazingly, fascinatingly complex: a rare feat in any era of rock music.






Now, I admit to being biased, as King Crimson remains my all-time favorite prog rock - guitar geek metal-20th century classical-improvisational-Moroccan-Indian-Terry Riley style minimalism-ECM style Euro jazz-polyrhythmic soundscape ensemble ever.





Then again, King Crimson is the ONLY one of those.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Five - Presenting Willie Howard

“Willie Howard was the best of all the revue comics, bar none.” George Jessel

“Willie Howard was a great artist. He was a fine comedian, an accomplished dramatic actor, an excellent singer, and a versatile mimic.” Fred Allen



There are reasons why Educational's final years in comedy and musical short subjects compel film historians to hide behind fedoras, shades, trenchcoats and insist "I know nothing - ask me about Francois Truffaut instead!"



Some Educational shorts are just plain bad. Others have their moments, but remain undeniably cheap and cheesy.



Almost all have sound quality recalling the ignominious "microphone in the plant" era of the late 1920's.

One Educational Pictures comedy star who did not create the fear, loathing and dread surrounding 1930's short subjects described as The Spice Of The Program: dialect comedian Willie Howard (1886-1949).



Willie was part of a team with brother Eugene on stage, radio and sometimes movies. Willie & Eugene Howard were considered the best Yiddish dialect comedy act in the business and frequently performed in The Passing Show.

Here, straight from The Roaring Twenties, are The Howard Brothers (the ones who don't say NYUK NYUK NYUK) in Between The Acts At The Opera, one of the pioneering early talkies (pre- The Jazz Singer) and vaudeville time capsules from the Vitaphone Varieties series.



Fast forward to 1937. Willie Howard, now a solo comic, is one of Educational's 2-reeler headliners. His characterization is a goofy and somewhat frenetic Parisian, sometimes a French teacher (Professor Pierre Ginsburg), other times a con artist, always on the take and on the make.



While ethnic humor frequently leaves your blogmeister as ice-cold as Buffalo Bills fans at a December home game, the comic timing, mannerisms, linguistic prowess and sheer verve of Willie Howard obliterates any "I'm too hip to laugh at this" response.



One curious fact about Willie's screen persona: how similar the zany Frenchman is to the Russian dialect characterization ("Nikolai Nikolaevich") adopted by a very young Danny Kaye in his first films, which happen to be Educational comedy shorts.







By the time the 1937-1938 season of Educational Pictures comedies and musicals were shot, the studio was on the way out. In a Hail Mary move, Earle W. Hammons cut a deal with struggling Grand National Pictures, a distributor with high hopes to expand into feature film production. Both folded in short order.

Of the Educational Pictures series, only Terrytoons, produced by the Paul Terry Studio in New Rochelle, retained its status among the 20th Century Fox short subject offerings and lived to see another day.



And with that, an important chapter in the history of screen comedy closed, punctuated emphatically by the 1937 vault fire that destroyed an incalculable chunk of film history: countless original negatives, ranging from dozens of Educational and Fox 2-reel comedy shorts to the lost F.W. Murnau feature 4 Devils.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Four


"A strange twilight zone of down-on-their-luck silent era names like Buster Keaton and moonlighting Broadway celebrities like Bert Lahr and Joe Cook." Aaron Neathery, The Third Banana blog, December 18, 2005

"When they catch Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger, they'll make him watch it twice." Bob Hope, describing his Educational Pictures short subject, Going Spanish.




January 1933 was a dreadful time for America. Bank "holidays" began happening with alarming frequency. Powerful companies were in ruins. How did this happen? Well, the story is lengthy and convoluted, but when one gets right down to it, Mack Sennett, Al Christie and Earle Hammons agreed that their only shot at surviving in a staggering, Depression-slammed motion picture business was to become feature film producers. All got involved in a business deal that went spectacularly kablooey: the Sono-Art-World-Wide-KBS Productions-Tiffany Studios merger in 1932 (soon to be covered at length in Richard M. Roberts' forthcoming book on film comedy).

Americans were overwhelmingly out of work and couldn't afford to buy tickets for anything, so movie houses closed across the U.S.A. The once mighty Fox Theater chain: gone. Paramount and RKO: in Chapter 11. Warner Brothers/First National - teetering on the verge of collapse. Hal Roach Studio - still operating, but on a substantially reduced production schedule. Educational: its exchanges liquidated.



Worse yet, Sennett chose, as stars of a feature length comedy, the minstrelsy radio and vaudeville comedy team of Moran & Mack (A.K.A. The Two Black Crows), popular in their day, especially on recordings, but not necessarily an act that appealed to audiences in the major metropolitan areas, even way back in 1932.



Now if one's heart's desire is to elicit aghast, stunned reactions in a 21st century audience, something akin to the response to "Springtime For Hitler" in Mel Brook's The Producers, run the Educational Pictures stinkers starring Moran & Mack. The Mack Sennett-Educational 2-reeler The Two Black Crows In Africa could still, more than 80 years after its original theatrical release, win the "Absolute Worst Attempt At A Comedy Ever Made" booby prize. Even to latter-day historians, diehard classic film geeks, fans of pre-1935 movies and experts on ethnic humor, the essential appeal of Moran & Mack - unlike silent-era Sennett comedy stars Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Alice Howell, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Louise Fazenda, Billy Bevan and others - still seems utterly incomprehensible.

Prolific silent comedy producer and Educational Pictures mainstay Al Christie did not retire as Sennett did. Al continued on as a producer of Educational's comedies and musical shorts in Astoria, New York and would until the last "Spice Of The Program" shorts were released in 1938.



As all of the production switched to the East Coast, the focus became Broadway stars and New York-based vaudeville acts. The new stars of Educational comedy shorts included ever-brash Bob Hope, Bert Lahr in his pre-Cowardly Lion appearances, and the ultra-zany Ritz Brothers.





Here are Harry, Al and Jimmy Ritz in their 1934 film debut, Hotel Anchovy - and pardon the dupey 18th generation print.





Also joining the Educational Pictures lineup at this time: one of the all-time greats of motion pictures, Buster Keaton.



In 1934, fresh off the humiliation that was working for the opulent, yet tone deaf, humor-challenged and comedy deficient Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Buster began starring in a series of two-reelers for Poverty Row producer Educational Pictures.





While the Educationals are as low budget as can be, unlike the MGM talkies, they showcase Buster's acrobatic skills, ingenuity and limitless talent.



Keaton's comedy chops are not just intact, but frequently sublime under the most hurried of shooting schedules and threadbare budgets.



Although the temptation is to compare these shorts to Buster's jaw-droppingly amazing films from the 1920's, in the oddest way, his ability to consistently make something wonderful within the microscopic budgets in these Educational shorts is as inspirational as his big screen epics from the 1920's.



Fortunately, all the Keaton Educationals exist and are available on DVD.












The headliners who soon joined Buster Keaton on the roster for the last three seasons of Educational Pictures comedy shorts included a wide range of vaudeville and radio acts, as well as a cartoonist!



These included the comedy team of Tim and Irene Ryan (yes, the same Irene who later starred on TV in The Beverly Hillbillies), comic artist Jefferson Mechamer, singer Neila Goodele, dancers Buster West and Tom Patricola, droll Paramount short subject star Tom Howard (soon to move on to success in radio with his quiz show sendup It Pays To Be Ignorant), Broadway dialect comic Willie Howard and character actor Ernest Truex.



Other than Keaton's series, the most sought after mid-1930's films of the Educational studio feature the original, zany and iconoclastic comedian/juggler Joe Cook (note: he made precious few film appearances, the best known one being in Frank Capra's 1930 feature Rain Or Shine).



The aforementioned roster of talent was responsible for some surprisingly enjoyable and sprightly 2-reel comedies and mini-musicals at a time when the Hal Roach Studio was phasing out short subjects, RKO had promoted shorts department mainstays Mark Sandrich and George Stevens to feature films and Columbia Pictures' Short Subject Department, under producer Jules White, became synonymous with slapstick.



And through it all, Paul Terry's Terrytoons studio, still a few years away from creating their flagship character Mighty Mouse (a.k.a. Super Mouse) cranked out cartoons - LOTS of cartoons - in New Rochelle.